COVID-19 School Shutdowns Expose Challenges Non-Traditional Students Face Everyday
By Melvin Hines, Upswing CEO
The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably changed the landscape of higher education. Video conferencing software and online study tools have replaced classrooms and buildings as students become 100 percent online. For many institutions that serve online and non-traditional students, this becomes a significant concern because these students tend to drop out of school at twice the rate of their on-campus peers.
Many agree this is an issue, but there is disagreement about the causes and potential solutions.
Over the past seven years at Upswing, we’ve been continually advocating for online and non-traditional students.
We believe that the reason for the discrepancy has less to do with the students’ capability or motivation and more to do with their lack of access to critical resources.
Utilizing data from Upswing’s integrated student services platform, this chart illustrates how many students are being impacted by a lack of access.
During an average 30-day period, 130,000 different users access the Upswing platform to connect with campus resources, and the vast majority of users are students.
The chart represents what percentage of users occupy the platform on average for each hour of a week. The blue represents 0.25% or less of the 130,000 users, green represents approximately 0.5%, peach represents 1%, and red represents 1.5% or more.
Viewing the chart, you see that specific trends begin to emerge. While some are expected, others dispel myths learning centers believe when supporting online students.
I’ll break down each myth further.
Myth #1: Online Students Don’t Study During the Weekends
One of the biggest myths about learning centers is that students spend their weekends socializing rather than studying.
However, according to Upswing usage trends, nearly 1 in 5 virtual sessions are conducted on the weekend. Sunday afternoons provide some of the most consistent activity, with 6.5% of all sessions occurring between 12 pm and 11:59 pm on Sundays.
At most institutions, virtually no student support resources are made available during the weekends. Not only does the lack of weekend availability of learning centers impact student success overall, but it affects explicitly students who have responsibilities during the week that prevent them from seeking help Monday through Friday.
It’s this lack of flexibility that hinders the success of so many online students.
Just a few weeks ago, one stressed Upswing user expressed to us that she planned to drop out of college. When we asked why she was making this decision, she indicated that with classes moving online and failing several classes, it felt that no one at her school cared whether she would succeed.
Fortunately, our team helped this user regain her confidence by understanding how to get back on track, and hopefully, she will be returning in the Fall.
But this is an example of how online and non-traditional students can suffer in silence before ultimately deciding not to return.
Myth #2: Sure, Online Students May Need Help At Odd Hours, But We Capture the Majority of Students With Our Current Schedule
This myth is held consistently across several college campuses. Most learning and support centers have a set Monday-Thursday, 10 am to 4 pm schedule. The idea is that while these hours don’t support 100% of student requests, they can help a majority within this timeframe.
Not so, according to Upswing usage activity data.
The above chart highlights a typical support center’s available hours in yellow.
Look at the more full range of times in the chart if your institution’s availability is different. For institutions following this availability schedule, they are only capturing the needs of 32% of students, leaving 68% of all student needs and requests unanswered in typical learning support hours.
Two of the heaviest hourly blocks — Mondays at 5 pm and Mondays at 6 pm — are times when students cannot receive help. On average, more than 4,000 students log onto Upswing demanding support during this time.
Early cutoff times hurt all students, but they disproportionately affect those who are most vulnerable.
The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce published a study recently that 70% of all college students have a part-time or full-time job. These students are more likely to be lower-income, minority, and female.
Myth #3: Fridays Aren’t Necessary
Many institutions only offer support Mondays through Thursday, presuming that students don’t demand as much help on Fridays because it leads into the weekend. However, based on our date, that is not true.
While there is undoubtedly lighter demand for help on Fridays than the other weekdays, nearly 15% of all session demand occurs on the last day of the workweek.
In fact, from 9 am to 6 pm, demand is virtually just as high. Only after 6 pm on Fridays do we see a significant decline in requests compared with the rest of the week.
How Should Colleges and Universities Support More Students While Working Within Budget Constraints?
At this point, the thought may be, “I agree that students need help. But we have limited budgets. How can we help more students while maintaining our costs?”
Based on our work with several institutions, here are some changes I suggest colleges and universities adopt.
Afternoons are better than mornings (except on Mondays). One way to capture more student demand is by offering greater support in the afternoons.
While demand does begin at 10 am each day, we see higher need during each of the afternoon hourly blocks. Therefore, adjusting learning center schedules to open and closer later will not just help more students, but also support a more diverse set of students.
One particular Upswing college partner used the data we collected to adjust learning center times. They eventually proclaimed that they were able to save 30% in costs without needing to cut the hours of any staff member.
- Allow for more virtual support hours. Across various institutions, we have noticed that there is typically an oversupply of staff members during peak work hours, but none or very few during off-peak hours.
- Allowing some staff members the opportunity to connect with students virtually during Friday, Saturday, and Sunday afternoons will not only help more of your online and non-traditional students succeed, but it can also ensure that all staff members are being used most effectively.
- Create a ticketing system for requests during closed hours. Inevitably, students will not be able to connect live with your staff.
- In situations where this is the case, a ticketing system is an excellent way for students to know that their concerns are being heard and addressed.
- Unlike email, which can sometimes feel unhelpful, ticketing systems allow students to track updates and know that someone is looking in their situation even if a response can’t be provided immediately.
- Ask online students what they need. One of the ways Upswing gathers information is by directly speaking with our users. Many students are willing to be honest and helpful if you ask them, “What would make your student life easier?”
Colleges are understandably under a great deal of pressure. COVID-19 has changed the landscape for a long time, if not forever. However, these challenges don’t have to result in higher student attrition. Simple adjustments can have monumental effects on student success.
Melvin Hines is the co-founder and CEO of Upswing, an Austin, Texas-based education technology firm. Over the past seven years, Upswing has been partnering with colleges and universities across the country (including 14 HBCUs), helping administrators, faculty, tutors, and advisors interact with students on campus and off.