Closing the Divide with Your Most Vulnerable Students
By Marissa Rodriguez, Customer Experience Manager
We continue to learn COVID-19 will not be a short-term crisis. As we approach the start of the Fall semester, it is probable that as institutions restart and plan for students to go back to campus, we’ll see yet another resurgence of cases due to a lack of precautions at an individual level. Hopefully, institutions across the country are preparing for this possible scenario so there is an existing emergency strategy and students aren’t in the same scenario they experienced last Spring.
As institutions shifted almost immediately to 100% online, this left students without access to on campus resources in despair, creating a deeper divide between those with access to resources and those without. Since 20% of students (approximately 3.3 million of 16.6 million total U.S. undergraduate students) don’t have the technological resource capabilities for online instruction, this leaves low-income and students of color extremely disadvantaged. This also doesn’t account for the families with shared computers and limited data plans, making it almost impossible for all of these students to survive in this environment.
Students Conveying their Distress
Through a two-way text communication tool, we witnessed an influx of responses at the end of March. Students expressed their distress once schools shifted online and they could either no longer access their classes, or engage in their learning process in the same way because they were lacking computers or wifi.
It is from these learnings and our collaboration with those schools who provide this service to their students that we were able to distill some specific strategies to support those most vulnerable students during this pandemic.
Many students said that they didn’t know what to do because they could no longer lean on the resources their campuses had and thought their only option was to drop out since they couldn’t complete their classes online. It also became apparent that students didn’t know who to turn to and talk through this major obstacle, which left them feeling stuck and helpless.
6 Tips to Support Students without Adequate Resources
1. Identify which students don’t have a computer AND wifi at home. Specify a way to get feedback from students either through a text message, email or social media where students identify they do not have one or either of those resources. You won’t know the extent of this issue until you get a good grasp on how many students this directly impacts. This then helps you put a plan in place to address the breadth and depth of student need.
One of our schools put together a Google form to gather this data from students, which we sent out as a message to their entire student population with the link to the Google form embedded, requesting students to fill it out if they needed assistance. Students designated what specific resources they lacked to finish out the semester (eg. computer, wifi, books, etc.), along with their contact information, student ID, and any other information to easily follow up with the student.
2. Promote the CARES act funding to students with known needs. If your school received this government grant, the monies would need to be distributed to those students who are eligible. We recommend you work with your financial aid office to identify students under a determined threshold to ensure you communicate these available funds to those who could use this assistance the most.
We had multiple schools promote CARES funding availability via the text messaging service by sending that message out to segmented groups of students identified as needing extra support or showing signs of risk. Those students were prioritized to send in their application first to see if they qualified.
3. Continue to widely Promote Mental Health Services. The more students learn they have counseling services available when they are experiencing such a stressful period of time, the more likely they are to seek out those services and get the help they need to process the non-academic challenges that present obstacles to finishing the term.
We learned last semester how much students yearned to talk to someone about what they were going through, and it was clear most students were unaware of their schools’ counseling services. Promoting health and wellness services widely through multiple channels will heighten students’ awareness and increase the likelihood of their using it.
4. Create a curated list of local and national resources on your school website to share widely with students. This could include information on discounted or subsidized wifi costs, community food pantries or food banks, and other resources to help those in need. Since students might not have access to these resources on campus, now more than ever, they need to know what other options are available. With students experiencing an already stressful period of their life, it is very likely they are not researching or are even aware that there are other, external resources available.
5. Ensure faculty are aware of these resources so they can help promote them to their students. Faculty are the people students will interact with most, regardless of whether campuses remain open or closed. When students choose to express their situation to their instructors, the instructors who are knowledgeable about resources for students can give some guidance on their options and refer them to recommended resources.
Sending faculty an email with this information at the beginning of the semester or providing that information during the faculty orientations at the beginning of the school year would be the best time to share this with them.
6. Use your communication channels to provide students encouragement. Through our communication tool, we placed added emphasis on giving words of encouragement and these messages were the types of messages students replied to most . Many students mentioned how much they needed to hear those words of encouragement. Just this simple action can go such a long way. Not only does this help them feel supported by their school, but helps them get through the day, week, and semester.
These are challenging times right now, and in our experience, making some minor adjustments can really go a long way for students in general, but most importantly for those most vulnerable and who are struggling because of their situation. As the start of the new semester quickly approaches we urge colleges to think of these students and find ways to surround them with the support they will need to get through this difficult period.
As a Non-Traditional student, Marissa experienced firsthand the impact education has in one’s life and the doors it can open when by circumstance that normally might not be the case. For this reason she is very passionate about education and has dedicated her professional career towards this mission. A Phoenix, Arizona native, led her to work at both University of Phoenix and Arizona State University. It was her goal to bring her experience in Higher Ed to the technology space, which led her path to the Austin tech hub and ultimately, Upswing as a Customer Experience Manager.