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A female college student uses her computer in her home while quarantined.

From College to Coronavirus: Keeping Students on Track to a Degree

Todd Penner

It’s not an easy time to be a college student.  

Even as colleges and universities announce tentative fall plans, students are left considering the loss of the traditional on-campus experience, the as-yet-unknown financial and health impact of COVID-19 on their own families, and even how these schools may react to a spike in cases mid-semester.

This is on top of adjusting to the increased academic rigor of college, and the possibility of taking many of their courses online. College is harder than high school for virtually all students, and it’s even harder without the ability to easily access professors or make friends in class to turn into study groups. Online learning has some advantages, but there is no direct comparison to the casual interactions of a classroom, problem-solving and discussing new ideas together. And that’s assuming students can even access those classes. We can’t take for granted that every student has the technology needed, including reliable internet access and a computer.

Looking to the Fall Semester

For many students, this is not the college experience that they imagined – or in many cases, dreamed about. While the practical concerns are seemingly endless, students are also feeling a true sense of apprehension and loss. College is an institution that is steeped in tradition, but it may be difficult to experience those traditions this fall.

My work at the foundation is focused on supporting the success of students from low-income backgrounds, many of them the first in their families to attend college. These are the students facing the greatest barriers to reaching a degree, even more so amid COVID-19, and the unique challenges ahead for them shouldn’t be underestimated.

But when I look to the fall semester, I also see signs of hope. Colleges have already taken critical steps to support students through the impact of COVID-19 and are laying the foundation for continued efforts this fall. Despite the uncertainty ahead, students won’t be facing it alone.

Keeping Students on the College Track 

Here are some of the initiatives underway at colleges across the country —

  • Providing Emergency Aid: The effort required for some colleges to fundraise and launch student emergency funds practically overnight has been nothing short of heroic. This includes allocating funds provided by the CARES Act, and ongoing funding will continue to be important as students recover from the sudden and sweeping impact of the virus.
  • Keeping Students Connected: This spring, technology teams worked around the clock to build out the infrastructure for remote learning. The effort will continue into this fall, with additional training required to ensure faculty and students can access and engage with their courses in a meaningful way. In some cases, colleges are connecting students with free or low-cost Wi-Fi and loaner laptops to keep coursework on track. Equitable access will undoubtedly be a leading priority this fall.
  • Engaging for Student Success: Through COVID-19, student advising teams are finding new ways to connect with, engage, and support students. Advising and tutoring are available through virtual models, while chatbots and text messages help to engage students and offer timely support. For colleges using predictive analytics to support college persistence, advisors are identifying new risk factors specific to remote learning (e.g. attendance in online courses) to power proactive outreach.

Creating a New Support System 

In recent months, colleges have been moving mountains, innovating on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to build this support system. This is a brand-new way of doing things, and this “new normal” shouldn’t entirely go away once we have a treatment for COVID-19.

While the pandemic has heightened the level of adversity students are facing, it is also serving as a forcing mechanism for long overdue technological and process enhancements to meet students where they are. This time of emergency has forced us to confront the issue that underrepresented student needs aren’t always adequately addressed by the status quo. I’m hugely encouraged by the recognition that colleges now have both an opportunity and a responsibility to change historical delivery models to better educate and support their students using more modern and effective approaches.

This effort is mission critical to higher education, and there’s no institution in a better position to safeguard the path to a degree and the lifetime of opportunity it represents.

If you have a request for funding that is related to COVID-19, please know that we are committed to fighting this pandemic and its subsequent economic fallout. Our immediate available funding has gone to accelerating the development of therapies, increasing the supply of PPE in Texas, stabilizing small business, and assisting our portfolio of current grantees.