Student Success and Retention in the Time of Coronavirus

Coronavirus visualization from the CDC

We know many of our faculty have had a big transition to make, as institutions have moved courses online rapidly in response to COVID-19—but it’s a huge transition for many of our students, too, especially those who have never taken an online course or who have limited access to the Internet now that campus is closed. What are some ways we can help students succeed and persist when plunged into this new world?

On March 25, over 900 higher-ed professionals from institutions all over North America attended one of our free COVID-19 Critical Response webcasts. It was an opportunity to hear from a leading expert on student retention—and to share ideas among their peers, hearing what other institutions are doing and what you could be doing. You can sign up to get the webcast recording (and chat transcript) here, or explore our rapidly growing COVID-19 Critical Response series—some of which are free for everyone, while others are free for our members.

COVID-19 has forced institutions to pivot and adapt in unprecedented ways. If you’re like most, you are laser-focused on your own campus responses and have been craving a space to connect with others, ask questions, and share ideas with the broader higher ed community. On March 25, we met (virtually) to discuss practices and approaches for student retention after the rapid move to online learning. Joining us to facilitate the discussion was Julie Nash, vice president of academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, which moved its courses fully online on March 18.

It was exciting to “put our heads together”—at a distance—and share ideas. Here are just a few of the many issues we discussed:

Getting Internet Access to More Students

Rapid campus closings have really thrown the “digital divide” into stark relief, and many participants in our webcast are struggling to get online courses out to rural or lower-income students who have more limited Internet access. “It’s something we’re watching,” Nash says. “It’s definitely an equity issue.”

Among the practices discussed:

  • Keeping an academic library facility open as long as possible to serve students as an internet café—if the facility is large enough to permit students spreading out and practicing social distancing. (This may not be feasible now in communities or states that are practicing a more total lockdown.)
  • Many Internet companies are offering free or discounted WiFi to students who are affected by COVID-19 and campus closures. One thing Nash’s institution did was gather this information and share it with their students.
  • Checking out Google Chromebooks or loaner laptops to lower-income students.
  • Providing WiFi hotspots for students. For example, in some communities, high schools have placed hotspots on buses and then parked the buses in more rural areas.

Serving Our Most Vulnerable Students

What about food and housing-insecure students?

  • Some institutions are closing their food pantries and trying to reroute students to other services in the community.
  • Some are moving their food pantries – e.g., to a campus safety substation that can help ensure social distancing and get the food in the hands of students without exposing them to greater risk.
  • Some are allowing students to place food pantry orders online and schedule a pickup time.
  • Some are offering grocery store gift cards that students can pick up from the campus safety office.
  • At residential colleges where some students are still living in the dorms (with nowhere else to go), dining halls are providing To-Go packages.
  • One institution is getting educational supplies and necessities in students’ hands by getting supplies (paper, pens, etc.) from the admin building to the dorms.

For an in-depth exploration of this issue – and what options your peers are pursuing – check out the free webcast recording from the following day, March 26: Addressing Food Insecurity During the COVID-19 Outbreak.

Nash also noted that microgrants or “bridge grants” of $1000 or $2000 may be especially critical right now. An emergency fund for students can help ensure students get through an urgent hurdle and can make a significant difference in their ability to stay safe, persist, and register for next term. Such a fund can also be used to provide grocery store gift cards to students.

  • If you have such a fund, Nash advises, now is the time to use it. “If we pay out every dime,” she says, “we’ll build that fund up again later, the same way we did the first time. The students need that support now. It doesn’t do us any good sitting on it.”
  • If you don’t have such a fund, this is the time to talk with your advancement office. Are there unrestricted funds that can be routed to this purpose? Are there pockets of money available for this? “If this isn’t an emergency,” Nash remarks, “I don’t know what is.” Are there alumni who would be excited to fund this?

These are just a few “nuggets” from the conversation, and there is also a robust chat script that you can get with the free webcast recording. When you get 900 higher-ed professionals together to talk about how to help students be successful amid all the change happening right now, there is so much opportunity to share creative and unexpected ideas.

Just the act of comparing notes with our colleagues during quarantine can be incredibly invigorating. We are offering more forums like this. For our members, we are also providing more structured, deep dives into current best practice. We hope you and your colleagues will join our next conversation.

Stay safe and well in the time of coronavirus – and stay connected.

Get the Entire COVID-19 Critical Response Series—And More—Free With Membership

Members also receive access to trainings designed to help:

  • Navigate unprecedented challenges presented by the current pandemic/COVID-19 crisis
  • Equip faculty with tools and skills they need for online instruction
  • Support advancement shops with fundraising efforts and more
  • Migrate student support services to online platforms
  • Empower women on your team with continuous and personalized professional development
  • Provide leadership, personal development and skills-based training to all faculty and staff

Image credit: Coronavirus visualization, courtesy of the CDC, via Unsplash.