In years past, after CONNECTED is behind us, my team comes together to reflect on the excitement of reuniting with partners, colleagues, and other familiar faces during our annual event in Washington, DC. From the adrenaline of live presentations, to the fun of interactive displays like the student success library, to selfies and happy hours, CONNECTED is always the most memorable event of the year for me.
Needless to say, things looked different this year—both on your campuses and at CONNECTED, which we hosted virtually for the first time ever. And as I reflected on the event, I realized the format wasn’t the only thing that was different. In the midst of a tumultuous year, student success leaders are grappling with challenges that feel bigger and more urgent than they ever have. In many cases, leaders are working to solve those challenges while socially distanced and with institutional policies in flux.
CONNECTED20 attendees share what's kept them motivated this year
1. Rebuilding student confidence in the college experience (and its cost)
When lockdowns forced many restaurants and businesses to close, millions of people, especially college-aged workers, were suddenly unemployed. During her presentation, EAB’s Christina Hubbard said, “students’ financial needs are greater now than ever before.” Financial problems are a big reason why students drop out—almost 40% of drop-outs say financial pressure is the main reason they left. As the long-term effects of this recession continue to play out, this problem will only get worse.
To address this, Dr. Hubbard said that schools need to break down barriers between financial aid and other offices so students have can access the resources, guidance, and aid they need. Teams need the right tools in place to work together to help students struggling to pay for college.
Dr. Hubbard shared how Pueblo Community College’s Success Coaches use Navigate to triage students who seek CARES Act funding in a joint process with the financial aid office. Students meet with a success coach to determine whether they are eligible for funding. Coaches then send the case to financial aid and students are updated via Navigate. PCC uses Navigate as the primary source of communication between students and support staff—it is central to the confidence students feel about their experience at PCC. In fact, 94% of students at PCC who have used Navigate, use it again. The pandemic has been a lesson in connecting and collaborating while remote, and teams must carry these lessons with them by breaking down silos and renewing efforts to streamline access to the support students need.
2. Addressing systemic inequities and equity gaps
In her presentation on inequities in student support, my colleague and EAB researcher Meacie Fairfax said, “Equity gaps aren’t the problem—they’re simply the symptom of at play within our society…Our students are denied a lot of educational and opportunity advances because of their circumstances.” The difficult but necessary conversations we’ve had this year amid a nationwide reckoning and movement for social justice have helped bring this to the forefront.
As the population of college students grows more diverse while faculty and administrator demographics lag behind, students may feel a lack of “belongingness” when they don’t see themselves and their experiences reflected in their school’s staff. Meacie shared accounts from Navigate partners who are addressing this by looking at their own flawed practices. The Community College of Denver (CCD) changed their hiring policies to help make sure staff backgrounds align with student demographics, while also diversifying their hiring committee. Thanks to this effort, CCD increased student-facing staff diversity by 20%, which now 100% reflects their student enrollment. While they don’t eliminate inequity on campus, changes like these help students feel a greater sense of belonging at their institution.
On the last day of CONNECTED, we heard from leaders from Milwaukee-area institutions partnering with EAB on the Moon Shot for Equity initiative, who talked about a shared commitment to eliminating equity gaps on their campuses. As part of this initiative, EAB will provide our research, technology, and guidance as we work together to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed. Vicki Martin, President of Milwaukee Area Technical College, said: “It’s up to us now as leaders to make sure we’re employing the kinds of strategies that are going to make a difference… to make sure we’re looking at our systemic racism and doing something about it.” Personally, I’m proud to be a part of this groundbreaking initiative and proud of the commitment these institutions have made.
3. Staying connected in our new normal
Sitting in home offices or near-empty buildings on campus, it’s easy to feel isolated in our work. Social distancing can take a toll on mental health and make it harder to feel engaged when you cannot see your students and talk to them in person. During her ConnectED Story, Dyan Lester, Dean of Student Success at Southwest Virginia Community College, shared how she rallied her team’s spirits in the early days of the pandemic. Dyan encouraged her staff to “picture” the students and colleagues they used to see in the halls every day:
“That student? They’re still there. That student is still feeling that same stress about their tests, that same elation when they do well. Your colleague is still there…Your community is still there. So, let’s try to shake off the isolation part of what we’re doing and find new ways to connect and be there for each other and our students. Your community needs you.”
A campus community isn’t confined to the campus itself—it is every student, wherever they may be right now, and every staff member as well. With in-person conversations no longer an option, advisors are reaching out to their students virtually, connecting over phone and Zoom calls. My colleague, Ed Venit, spoke about the value of virtual student support, not only as a way to stay connected right now, but as a useful tool even after the pandemic. By making access to support as easy and convenient as possible, you help all students succeed, no matter their schedule, means, or circumstances.
As I learned while exploring the CONNECTED20 virtual Networking Lounge, virtual networking is actually pretty great. Tons of attendees shared their student success wins from this year: higher faculty use of progress reports, fewer advising appointment no-shows, and successful use of Quick Polls to keep tabs on student needs at a distance. Partners across the globe, from Alaska to Abu Dhabi, met one another and shared their tips for supporting students through these difficult times.
Adaptability and resilience in the face of challenges
In the Networking Lounge, we asked conference attendees to describe 2020 in one word. I was expecting words like “horrible” or perhaps “dumpster-fire,” but the responses were surprisingly hopeful. Among words like adaptability, fortitude, creative, pivot, and innovate, I found a common theme: this year has tested us all, but has proven for me beyond a doubt that the dedicated people in higher education are nothing if not resilient in the face of challenges.
During her talk on the final day of CONNECTED, Dr. Mary Evans Sias spoke about how leaders can respond to the challenge of equity on campus—and I think her words apply to how we ought to approach broader challenges the industry is grappling with right now: “We are not yet done. The next pivot will not be a sprint, but a long journey… To find our way, we must focus on what has always been important: student success.”
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Committed to closing equity gaps by 2030
Learn more about EAB’s Moon Shot for Equity initiative to erase equity gaps—and learn how your region can participate.