Many students walking through the doors of community colleges have already been told that they are not college material. Or they experience circumstances that can easily discourage them or prevent them from succeeding. Even so, these students bring their hopes and aspirations with them – and rely on the college’s faculty and staff to succeed.
That has never been more true than during the COVID-19 pandemic. For nearly 20 years, the Center for Community College Student Engagement has been providing insights into student experience to help community college leaders lead students to graduation. In late spring 2020, the center offered an online survey that focused on how students were coping with all of the changes caused by the pandemic. The resulting data showed that many students struggled with feelings of isolation, lost income, and a lack of technology.
And black or African American students experienced more challenges and worries than others. For example, 36 percent of black or African American students said having access to a reliable computer or laptop was a challenge, compared with 24 percent of Hispanic or Latin American students and 14 percent of white students. Even more alarming, 67 percent of black or African American students expressed concerns about having enough food for themselves and / or their families, compared with 60 percent of Hispanic or Latin American students and 44 percent of white students. Even higher percentages of students were concerned about paying utility bills and paying their rent or mortgage.
The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that already existed for many students, and it has become clear that colleges need to dig deeper to understand the life barriers that affect their students. While colleges cannot solve all of the problems their students encounter, they can ensure that students have the interpersonal foundations that are essential to their success. You can also help their students understand what they are working towards and help them develop a plan to get there. While relationship development and the work of counseling in the virtual world may look different, they remain essential.
The importance of people and plans
More than 15 years of our focus group results show that relationships and a sense of belonging can make the difference between a student staying in college and leaving college. When students attending focus groups are asked if they have ever thought of dropping out of college, many say they did. And when asked what helped them stay, almost all of the students’ responses are about relationships.
One student said this of meeting a faculty member after missing a class: “I ran into this [the instructor] … and he says: ‘Where have you been? I was worried. I was really concerned because this is not like you. You are not a person who would miss class out of the blue. ‘“
To develop deeper relationships with students, we need to understand the circumstances that can prevent them from succeeding. A recent report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement underscores the importance of the faculty and college staff talking to students about their working lives. For example, when instructors know how many hours per week their students work, those students are much more engaged and on the road to success. Still, 83 percent of first-year working students say their instructors don’t know how much they’re working.
Likewise, the importance of students with an academic plan cannot be underestimated. Institutions making guided path reform efforts help students explore career interests early on so they have a clear idea of where to go and what exactly they need to do to get there. This type of academic planning provides students with a roadmap to success. And if the students fall off the path, supports are built in along the way to realign them.
One student said about guided paths: “I get a call from my advisor. “You got off track. Do you know that you are not on the right track? … OKAY. Come see me ‘… the advisor is really the one checking me out. “
Another student describes these supports as safety nets: “There are many safety nets. … your teachers. Advice. Your advisors. Everyone has a hand. If you fall everyone will help you pick you up. There are so many safety nets and emergency safety nets. The support system is really great here. “
Community colleges are designed to educate a diverse population of students with different goals and competing demands on their time. And while community colleges have long proven to be agile, adapting to both student needs and an evolving job market, the current decline in enrollments and uncertainty about when students can return to campus classrooms calls for a new kind of agility.
It’s certainly a big question, but it might be encouraging for colleges to know that after about two months of the pandemic, two students felt like the carpet had been pulled out right from under them, with the vast majority – 88 percent – agreeing that her college supported her.
This statement is part of a series of year-end considerations that EdSurge will publish at the end of 2020.