How Pueblo Community College transformed their communication approach to retain students during COVID-19

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How Pueblo Community College transformed their communication approach to retain students during COVID-19

“It’s a great partnership.” This is not a statement that many of us would expect from a student services leader about their relationship with faculty, considering the stereotypes of faculty and student services being pitted against each other. Yet, that is exactly how Mike Gage, director of student support and outreach at Pueblo Community College (PCC) described the unprecedented collaboration occurring on his campus during the current crisis.

Like many colleges, COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges faced by leaders at PCC. Students’ inconsistent access to internet at home threatens to widen equity gaps. Faculty struggle to adapt engaging in-person lessons to experiences that can be taught remotely. And student-facing staff are reevaluating how to extend service when students can’t simply walk-in for help.  

But the coronavirus pandemic has also brought out the best in faculty and staff at PCC and other institutions. Colleges across the country are adapting their approach and using technology in creative ways to help their students thrive during these uncertain times. To help in those efforts, I wanted to share how PCC is using technology in three key areas: communication, advising, and academic success.

Switching from passive updates to tailored communication

With 5,000 students spread across a service area that spans more than 350 miles, administrators at Pueblo Community College knew that communication about the transition to remote learning was essential. There would be questions about labs and clinicals, which campus facilities were open, and what was happening with graduation.

In response, PCC created a website to let students know the latest information about the college response to the pandemic. However, they realized quickly that simply having a webpage was not the same as communicating those resources to students. It was too passive and placed responsibility on students to find the right resources on their own.  

To shift this burden from students, PCC turned to Navigate. Through a simple text message, they notified nearly all students about the information available online. Advisors then followed up via email to address students’ personal needs such as job loss, housing or food insecurity, and mental health concerns. As Mike explained:

“Even though the crisis is occurring, so is life, and I think it’s actually getting harder for students who struggle with housing or food.”

The pandemic has also led some PCC students to withdraw from their courses. Using Navigate, Mike generates a report each day of students who withdrew the day before, and reaches out to them personally to discuss their circumstances and whether withdrawal is their best option. Many times, the situation can be resolved, and Mike works with the college registrar to keep the student enrolled.

Virtual advising with a focus on planning ahead

As the saying goes, failing to plan is planning to fail. And in the midst of a crisis like this one, it can be difficult to think beyond the next few days. But the advising team at PCC didn’t want something as simple as the lack of an academic plan to prevent students from maintain academic momentum and registering for summer and fall classes, so advisors committed to helping every student get an academic plan on file.

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percentage point decrease in PCC’s advising appointment no-show rate after a Navigate appointment campaign
percentage point decrease in PCC’s advising appointment no-show rate after a Navigate appointment campaign

To achieve this, advisors created an appointment campaign in Navigate to encourage students to schedule web-based meetings with their advisors. Students receive tasks to complete ahead of the meeting, and are reminded about the appointment one day and one hour before. This approach has brought PCC’s advising appointment no-show rate from around 15% down to just 5%.

These advising appointments give advisors the opportunity to connect with students in a more human way. The first question they ask is, “How are you doing?” These meetings create space to reassure students that they will succeed and to connect them to any resources they need to achieve their goals. It’s also an opportunity for staff to collaborate on student success by connecting students to other services, such as the campus food pantry or financial aid, in the moment.

A network to connect students with resources in the moment

Planning for the future is fruitless if students are struggling in their current courses. To reveal who needs additional support, using Navigate, PCC advisors request that faculty submit progress reports, which allow them to provide feedback on individual student attendance, grades, and any reported needs.

These reports have become especially important during the shift to remote instruction. Faculty responses can be used to flag which students aren’t attending classes that are now offered through remote instruction. Advisors then reach out to students to help them troubleshoot and problem-solve. Mike explained:

“We want students to be able to advocate for themselves, but sometimes they don’t have the language.”

His team can provide that. By proactively reaching out, the college’s advisors help students succeed in the current term, and also support enrollment goals for the summer and fall. They are using technology to be as high-touch as possible.   

These are, by any measure, trying times. All of our lives have been upended. As educators, we realize that some of our students are among the most vulnerable. For many of them, this may be a turning point. As we have already seen, technology can be a lifeline. It helps us continue our work. It helps us stay connected with parents, sisters, brothers, friends. We can—and we will—use it to help our students get through this, too.

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