COVID-19 Now: Addressing the Impact on the Student Experience
by Maureen O. Hall
Tarragona Associates, 4/20/20
As the higher education industry struggles with the impact of COVID-19, students find their educational experience upended and falling short of their expectations. In a recent survey, college presidents were asked about their short- and long-term priorities for their institution. Top concerns included:
mental and physical health of students and employees
access to online education tools
faculty readiness for remote teaching
While the top student-focused concerns, near-term, were:
student mental health
access to online learning platforms and tools
All of these issues impact the overall health of an institution. With the quick turnaround from in-person to remote learning, faculty, staff, and students did not have sufficient time to prepare for the changes. They also did not fully anticipate the impact that this new normal would have on technology access, teaching, and the administration of programs and classes.
Institutions are still coping with the pandemic and assessing the impact the change has had on student satisfaction, and how this crisis will impact recruitment in the coming months. Schools should consider the following questions as they assess the processes used during COVID-19:
Remote Learning: How successful was the adjustment to remote learning, especially for students? Have you assessed the roadblocks students experienced in this unexpected transition? Have you assessed policies related to degree requirements and made appropriate adjustments? How effective were the processes used in the transition to remote learning?
Mental Health: How are the students coping with the loss of campus-based learning and social experiences? Have processes been put in place to help students work through potential mental health concerns brought on by the changes, such as adjusting to remote learning, and the loss of their social experience?
Communication Plan: The survey of presidents conducted by Inside Higher Ed listed maintaining student engagement as the top challenge during the COVID-19 move to remote learning, so ask yourself how effective has your student communication plan been? Do you have effective processes in place to promote student engagement and create a sense of community? Has the communication plan been consistent and successful? How involved have faculty, administrators, and the advising staff been in the communication plan?
Recruitment: Are processes in place to reassure prospective students that they will receive a valuable education and campus experience, even if it is remote? How are you accounting for that absence of an in-person interaction to develop the connection to the university?
As my Tarragona Associates colleagues wrote in a previous post, this is a opportune time to focus on the building blocks of student success, academic quality, and operational stability. Student success is key, and a strong advising platform is crucial to providing appropriate support services. “Driving Toward a Degree, The Evolution of Academic Advising in Higher Education” identified five elements essential to creating a robust advising operation: leadership, advising capacity, advising coordination, technology, and student engagement. All of these factors have been impacted by the accelerated move to remote learning.
Advising and Student Engagement – Keys to Student Satisfaction
"Driving Toward a Degree" also reminds us that it is important to have an effective advising system in place for students as they navigate through the various policies, experiences, and decision-making processes associated with completing a degree. Advisors play an important role in the student support system. Institutions also need other members of the community to help support the student during their journey. Students typically have faculty and other administrators who also serve as advisors or mentors.
Because the COVID-19 crisis has adversely impacted the advising process, it is vital to establish a consistent advising and communication plan. In addition to advising staff, it is important to enlist the help of other members of the institution, such as faculty and administrators, to be involved in this process. Their involvement will help create a sense of community and assure the students that supporting their progress and success is a university-wide effort. As leaders assess their current status in this crisis, they should consider addressing the following areas in their institutions:
Managing the Student Experience:
Create a communication plan, assess services, and design solutions for identified challenges: Focus on excellent student satisfaction with all aspects of their university experience: academic support, health center gauging student mental wellness, campus support services, effectiveness of course delivery, academic progress, access and effectiveness of technology.
Establish a proactive financial aid advising system: develop a virtual platform to allow easy access to financial aid advisors; identify an efficient process for providing refunds; and develop a process to work with students who may be experiencing financial hardships due to a lack of financial resources at home (perhaps the CARES Act funds could help).
Managing Student Connection and Engagement:
Social aspects of the college experience: Create opportunities to continue peer and social engagement via virtual platforms (e.g. academic club maintains communication with advisor); create virtual small group sessions for courses to encourage student participation and to gauge student progress in class; and create a virtual campus speaker series with high profile alumni.
Identify ways to conduct special virtual activities for important milestone events, such as orientation, graduation, welcome week, etc. These events will not replace the actual activity but will be an opportunity to recognize the student’s accomplishments until you are able to create a campus event (e.g., create booklets to share with various populations about their class; invite an alum to participate as a guest speaker).
First-year students: Create additional touch points with students who were new to the university when COVID-19 hit, who had insufficient time to develop a lifelong connection to the university (e.g., involve alumni and the campus community in communication campaigns).
Managing Effective Tools for Career Advising:
Remote access to Career Training: Create a career management timeline with measurable goals for the students; provide a well-designed virtual platform with useful tools.
Create an advisor calendar for virtual career training, such as interview preparation, virtual interview techniques, resume reviews and provide advice on seeking employment in a down economy.
Overcoming the Challenges
COVID-19 will impact your recruitment, admissions, retention, and enrollment processes for Fall 2020 and beyond. Inside Higher Ed’s “Attracting Students Amid the Coronavirus,” states that some institutions have made adjustments to their admissions criteria already. Have you identified ways to temporarily remove some of the processes that could be seen as barriers to admission during this crisis?
It may be necessary for institutions to offer remote learning during Fall 2020; however, the quality expectations for remote learning from students will be much higher than the quick turnaround they experienced in the spring. What did you learn from the Spring process and what will you do differently if you need to offer courses remotely in the future? Schools must plan for the future. If campus is not accessible in the Fall, are you prepared? While some schools are considering contingency plans now, others are focused on finishing remote summer courses before addressing Fall.
Whatever happens in the Fall, institutions need to be prepared for the unexpected. Do you have a contingency plan? Have you assessed the processes your institution used in Spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 crisis to identify areas that need improvement? Are you prepared to make future transitions to online platforms for classes, advising, and administration?
Let Tarragona Associates help you navigate this challenging time.
With Tarragona’s help, you will:
Enhance student satisfaction
Assess and improve your advising processes
Improve student engagement
Maintain the integrity of your academic programs
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About the Author
Maureen O. Hall, M.A., is a higher education professional with over 20 years of experience managing business school graduate programs and student affairs. She has worked in public and private institutions. She has been successful in enhancing student and faculty engagement with her office through establishing relationships built on trust, excellent performance, respect, and open communication.