(Spoiler Alert: Zoom isn't one of them)
As higher education institutions have shifted from on-campus to online learning (and vacillated back and forth), there has been a lot of focus on two aspects of that transition: how to translate the classroom experience to a virtual setting and how to protect people when they are on campus. Enter Zoom and the welcome kit most on-campus students received this year complete with mask and hand sanitizer. But just as the pandemic has affected every aspect of life, it has affected every aspect of the higher education experience. Here are some additional ways institutions can support their students and keep them engaged.
Ensure Equal Access to Campus Services
The paradox of "the cobbler's children have no shoes," is a reality for many colleges and universities. While they employ brilliant faculty who work in modern facilities and perform cutting-edge research, in many cases back-office practices are surprisingly antiquated. Students often must complete a paper form or stand in line to get assistance from offices on campus – in some cases even for routine activities like adding or dropping classes, requesting a refund or changing their major.
While these practices have been considered frustrating and inefficient for many years, they have become major pain points for students who are no longer on campus. In the short term, band aids may have been applied to some of these processes that substitute email or phone support to get through what was viewed as a temporary pause in campus life.
However, institutions should take this opportunity to review, streamline and update these processes. A student waiting for a response to an email or phone call is just as frustrated as the one standing in line. For every one of these interactions, institutions should consider the following:
Commit to Transferability
The pandemic has caused a great deal of upheaval and forced some students to reevaluate their education plans. Whether it be to save money, travel less, care for a relative or other reasons, it is likely many students will opt to transfer to a different institution to complete their studies. According to College Transfer Solutions, the average transfer student loses over 40% of their credits.
Institutions that maintain robust articulation agreements and make transferring relatively easy for students can be big winners during this time. Conversely, administrators may think they do not want to make it easy for students to transfer credits out. However, when students find that credits do not transfer, they often blame the original institution for having a curriculum that was not acceptable to their next school. Working to ensure that a student's credits will transfer elsewhere is a key to maintaining a positive brand image with that student even after they have left.
How to ensure credits will transfer?
For students transferring into your institution: Maintain articulation agreements with a variety of institutions and automate evaluation as much as possible so that students receive consistent evaluations in a timely manner.
For students transferring out: In addition to articulation agreements, review course titles and course descriptions. Receiving institutions often use this information as a basis for awarding credit (or not). The more easily they can discern the course content, the more likely the student will receive credit.
Address food insecurity
A 2019 report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, found that food insecurity affected more than 60 percent of students surveyed. Consider how hard it is to think and learn when you are hungry and it is clear this issue is an education concern in addition to an economic issue.
Many institutions have already created on-campus food pantries to address this need. The College & University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) reports over 700 member institutions. But with over 5,000 colleges and universities, just in the United States, most students do not have access to these services.
For those institutions that have food pantries, keeping them open and finding safe ways to serve students is essential. But on-campus food pantries are not the only way to help. Resources to help students connect with food pantries and services in their area can fill the gap for those who are studying remotely or attend a campus without a food pantry.
Support Student Wellness
Much of the learning and growth that happens in higher education takes place outside the classroom. Many institutions have developed robust on-campus support systems for students that include health services, counseling and fitness facilities.
As institutions shift to virtual learning, many students need this support more than ever but some retooling is needed to adapt them to the current environment.
Maintaining access to these services can help retain students by allowing them to be successful and feel supported by their institution through this time.
The benefits of being part of the on-campus community play a large role in keeping students engaged so they remain with an institution through graduation. Generally, colleges and universities have a rich array of activities happening on-campus – clubs, athletics, lectures, musical performances and social gatherings. When institutions quickly switched to virtual learning, nearly all of these activities were put on hold. Missing out on these experiences can leave students feeling disconnected which can cause some to pause or discontinue their studies. Institutions should consider how to adapt the greater campus community to an online world so that students have the ability to connect with other students online who share their interests and also experience the rich culture that the institution has to offer in academics and the arts.
In conclusion, now that the initial transition to online learning has been accomplished. Colleges and universities should consider the aspects of the higher education experience that occur outside the classroom and how to adapt or reimagine them to a virtual experience. As the impacts of the pandemic play out, there will invariably be winners and losers in the higher education space. The winners will be those who are able to keep their students engaged and connected to the institution – even after their zoom class has ended.