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The pandemic taught us how to retain and graduate students in 2021 and beyond

December 3, 2020, By Ed Venit, Managing Director, Strategic Research

It’s not much of a stretch to say that 2020 has been a transformative year, perhaps the most impactful year of our lives. Between the pandemic, record unemployment, and a long-overdue racial reckoning, we have seen an unprecedented degree of change in a very short period of time.

Higher education sits at the nexus of these three social forces, and these challenges are reshaping our entire industry, including how we think about student retention. Much of what we have done to adapt to the crisis represents work that we should have done a long time ago to better serve and support our students’ success.

My EAB colleagues and I have spent much of the year talking with college and university leaders about how they have been evolving their approach to student success. As we look back on what we have learned, we have become increasingly convinced of four key advancements from 2020 that will set the direction for how we retain and graduate our students for years to come.

Here is what we learned, along with links to relevant EAB resources where you can learn more about each one:

Many registration barriers are gone forever

Back in Spring 2020, most of higher education was scrambling to get students equipped with the technology and bandwidth access they would need for virtual learning environments. Retention and enrollment leaders were seeing something else to be worried about, namely that registration numbers for the fall were lagging far behind where they should normally be. EAB partner institutions launched an unpresented number of reenrollment campaigns to bring these numbers up.

Seeing that retaining students was going to be harder than ever, many schools also made sweeping reforms to remove any policies or barriers that might discourage students from registering. I heard from more than one contact who said that they had wanted for years to remove these byzantine processes but lacked the occasion or political will, and they have no intention of returning to the old ways once the pandemic has passed. The end result is a more streamlined and student-friendly registration process that is likely worth a few percentage points in added persistence at many schools.

Virtual advising is here to stay

Everything went virtual last spring, including advising and student support functions that had previously been primarily face-to-face. There was a lot of concern over what would happen next. Would students remain engaged? Would advisors be able to reach their students?

As it turns out, the opposite happened. I recently profiled five ways in which virtualization expanded access to advising and support, and how students responded in record numbers. Without fail, every advising director I have spoken with has said that virtual advising has been a massive success. The convenience of virtual environments draws in students who no longer need to make a 30-minute appointment to ask simple questions. On the flip side, advisors enjoy the flexibility to set hours that fit their family responsibilities, while also further expanding access into the evenings and weekends for students who can only meet at those times.

Virtualization has even inspired some colleges, such as the University of Oregon and Georgia Highlands College, to set up online help desks that further lower the barriers to accessing support. We think these help desks may be the next iteration of the “one stop shop” in which students can access answers to a wide variety of academic, personal, and financial issues through a single portal.

Virtual advising allows for more students to engage on their terms and in more productive ways, and thus seems assured of being a core component of any advising office moving forward.

Financial aid is increasingly part of the conversation

We all know that student finances are a huge part of the student success equation. So why is it that the financial aid office almost never has the same reporting lines as other student success units? Leaving financial aid on the periphery of the student support conversation that centers in academic and student affairs impairs our ability to holistically address student concerns. This has never been more apparent than during this crisis.

Faced with evolving personal situations such as job loss and unexpected expenses related to remote learning, many schools focused on increasing student access to financial counseling and support. In addition to the aforementioned help desks, we also saw roughly one in ten Navigate partners add the financial aid office to their coordinated care networks in just the six months between March and September 2020, making it the third most common care unit and the fastest growing.

This is indicative of a larger movement by which institutions are building bridges between the financial aid office and the rest of the student experience. We saw examples of colleges leveraging technology to improve faculty reporting during enrollment census and the use of these data to try to engage non-attending students. Others have integrated financial aid fundamentals into core academic advising conversations. As a result, students are now better informed about how to maintain their financial aid and stay in good academic standing.

Equity is everything now

I saved this for last not because it is the least important, but because it is the most important. College leaders have understood for years that their White students graduate at higher rates than their Black and Brown students, yet little progress has been made to close these gaps. We can no longer downplay or ignore this issue.

The Black Lives Matter movement opened the nations’ collective eyes to deep systemic inequities in all corners of our society, with higher education as no exception. With racism finally at the forefront of strategic conversations, colleges and universities must be leaders in showing America how to be anti-racist. Among the many steps schools need to take is a realignment of student support in a way that promotes inclusivity and belongingness.

Virtual advising helps with this, as many BIPOC students report feeling more comfortable talking to their advisor when they are on their own home turf. Yet this is just a first step, as students also want assurances that their advisor understands their background and experiences. Many schools will need to upskill and evolve their student support teams to create an experience that minoritized students feel they can trust. We found one such program at Northern Kentucky University, where advisors, faculty and staff build and broaden their cultural understanding of they students they are serving.

Never going back

The struggles of 2020 have been real, but so have the innovations. We are not going to forget the lessons we have learned this year, and indeed there is some real hope that these changes will become permanent.

What do they all have in common? In each example, colleges oriented less around themselves and more around the needs of their students. We met them where they are, in modalities that make them feel comfortable, while making the entire system easier to navigate. Or as one provost told me:

“For years we have been talking about meeting students where they are. Now we are really doing it. The pandemic forced us to stop talking about being a student-centered university and start actually being one.

We aren’t going to lose these lessons. The innovations we are developing now will become permanent enhancements to policy and strategy moving forward, and the ultimate beneficiaries will be our students.

Ed Venit

Managing Director, Strategic Research

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