Accelerate Recovery: Give Students a Virtual Hand in the College Transition

Thursday, April 16, 2020
Ryan Reyna

Each year, nearly 2 million students in the U.S. graduate from high school and fail to enroll in a higher education program the following fall. As ESG’s President and CEO, Matt Gandal, pointed out in the first blog in the #AccelerateRecovery series, without dramatic intervention, this pipeline leak is in danger of becoming a gushing stream as students and communities deal with the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

K-12 and higher education leaders—as should be expected—are laser focused on the immediate challenges of shifting to virtual instruction on a scale never seen before and attending to the health, safety, and financial security needs of their students, families and staff.  All of this work is critical and should be celebrated. And yet, as K-12 and higher education each turn inward to address these issues, we cannot forget that our most vulnerable students often get left behind in the handoff between sectors.

A significant number of students are now considering changing their postsecondary enrollment plans for the fall due to the stresses and uncertainties around COVID-19. According to one survey, 17 percent of students have already changed their plans and another 63 percent anticipate COVID-19 changing their selection of an institution – for instance from a four-year to two-year college. For those whose plans have changed many are considering taking a “gap year” or enrolling part time. The even scarier part of this survey is that the sample of high school seniors skews toward students from higher-income families, many of whom are likely already on track to attend a four-year university. The impact on students of color, those from low-income families, and first-generation college students is likely to be multiplied many times over.

So how can states and communities take pre-emptive action during this health and economic crisis to avoid a major decline in postsecondary enrollment, especially for our most vulnerable student populations?  From our work around the country, and our efforts to organize the Level Up coalition, I see four main strategies with the potential for reversing this tide:

1. Dramatically expand virtual college and career advising supports

2. Prioritize academic “catch up” for high school juniors and seniors

3. Implement automatic enrollment policies and programs that propel students to attainment

4. Make college affordable through expanded scholarship and emergency aid dollars

There is a lot to unpack in each of those ideas, so I’m just going to focus on the advising supports issue in this blog; in the weeks ahead, I will offer advice and point to promising practices for the other identified areas.

At a time when many high school seniors are making college decisions and juniors are beginning to explore their postsecondary options, the COVID-19 crisis is limiting the capacity K-12 officials to offer quality college and career advising. Already-taxed guidance systems in high schools are likely to be even more strained as they work to support students’ social and emotional needs. The potential lack of advising support is especially challenging for vulnerable populations, who tend to benefit more on the whole from effective counseling. Now is the time for states, districts, and higher education institutions to develop and quickly scale innovative strategies to offer navigational supports. Here are four high-impact strategies to do just that.

Create a network of virtual advisors

With the loss of summer employment and work-based learning opportunities due to COVID-19, low-income students and students of color are going to have even fewer chances to build their social networks, and evidence shows that these networks are a critically important asset in supporting their postsecondary success. States or communities could follow Tennessee’s lead to start a volunteer advisor/mentor network that recruits current college students, recent graduates, and/or industry representatives to volunteer an hour or two a week to connect with rising high school seniors and those who just graduated. In particular, I recommend creating a program to target areas with largest proportion of low-income and first-generation students. For instance, Advise TN connects advisors to juniors and seniors at each participating high school to help them apply and enroll in an institution of best fit. With the downturn in the economy, it is an especially ripe strategy to tap into graduating college seniors who will be entering a challenging job market.

Provide targeted, intrusive virtual advising

Students at the greatest risk of failing to transition from high school to higher education can benefit from straightforward, action-oriented outreach that is individually targeted to them. States, districts, and institutions should identify a list of vulnerable students to triage engagement based on potential risk factors, and then consider implementing one (or more) of the following:

– Partner with Signal Vine, or other similar company, to set up text engagements to check on mental health and make sure they are staying up-to-date on appropriate paperwork / other steps to facilitate transitions into and persistence through higher education.

– Partner with Naviance, or similar college and career planning platform, to send push notifications to students regarding college and career planning.

– Repurpose College Advising Corps (CAC) advisors, or similar third-party college and career advisors, to act as “case managers” for outreach to students that have not reengaged with school and students that may face the greatest hurdles in transitioning into higher education in the fall.

There are a variety of high-quality college access advising partners in the field that can be force multipliers for advising efforts. Beyond CAC, College Possible, One Goal, and CollegePoint, among others, offer programs that lend a helping hand to students through the selection, application, and matriculation processes. The best of these programs continue advising and mentoring services through a student’s first year in college. While many college access support programs are structured to provide in-person engagement, given the current crisis, they have all shifted their strategies to virtual engagement. One of our partners in the Level Up coalition, the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), released a helpful blog about how college access programs can support virtual advising. NCAN is also maintaining a webpage with a complete set of resources detailing their members’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Develop a virtual summer bridge program

Many institutions across the country offer summer bridge programs designed to help first-generation college students connect to their postsecondary programs both academically and socially. These programs have been found to increase postsecondary persistence and attainment. Losing out on this opportunity may have dramatic effects on any first-generation student who does matriculate in Fall 2020. State leadership is necessary to ensure that these supports are broadly available.

Higher education leaders across a state or within a community should come together to develop an institution-agnostic virtual “summer bridge” program to start this summer. That program should include an orientation to college life and resources, with a specific focus on engaging virtually (for both academics and advising supports), training on skills necessary for college success, and connections to peer and faculty networking opportunities. When I worked in Delaware, we did something like this for low-income, high-achieving students. Each year, students participated in a statewide bridge program in summer between 11th and 12th grades, and then were paired with a virtual mentor for the 12th grade to keep the students engaged and help them navigate the college application, selection, and financial aid processes. The Delaware Goes to College Academy, while initially structured for an in-person environment, could serve as a model for this type of virtual bridge program.

Welcome students to higher education in a time of heightened anxiety

It may seem overly simplistic, but in this time of tremendous uncertainty, the simple act of reaching out to high school seniors to let them know that someone is thinking about them and their needs can go a long way to closing the gap between high school and higher education. This may help address anxieties families are feeling about affordability, safety, and return on investment. And it can signal to students that they are “college material.” In Delaware, we ran a “Get to Zero” campaign that targeted every high school student in the state that demonstrated college readiness. One of the simplest, and from anecdotal evidence, most effective components of that program was sending a letter from the Governor letting the student know that a spot was waiting for them in one of our state institutions and outlining all of the supports—academic, financial, and advising—available to them to make sure they enrolled. There are some impressive efforts across the country to conduct outreach to students to engage them in virtual instruction. States and districts should have similar efforts in place to offer college and career advising supports.

The next few months will be critical as we simultaneously weather the COVID-19 crisis and enter high school graduation season. Though pipeline leaks threaten to worsen in these circumstances, states and districts can take action now to mitigate postsecondary transition gaps. We must not be constrained by silos. It will take partnership between K-12 and higher education, governmental and non-governmental actors, and state and local leaders to help students navigate the maze from high school to higher education. And we must redouble our efforts to ensure our most vulnerable populations are not left further behind in this crisis.