College Success Support: Then and Now

College students have been pushed to their limits over the past year and the pandemic has demonstrated their determination and resourcefulness like never before. This is true both in the ways they persevered through new challenges, but also in the ways they no longer could, as longstanding workarounds and fragile support systems were put to the test.

Many students had been making it work through sheer determination and creative fixes — doing schoolwork on the only computer at the family home, accessing Wi-Fi on campus, making ends meet with a part-time job. In some cases, students had been such effective problem-solvers that the underlying issues went unnoticed by those of us looking in from the outside. But under the extreme circumstances of the pandemic, the inequities and struggles they had been circumventing were suddenly exposed.

For students who have had to be self-reliant throughout their lives, it isn’t easy to ask for help. And their grit and resourcefulness will take them far. But while we can be inspired by their tenacity, we should also recognize that it shouldn’t be this hard for students to address their basic needs in college. As college success advisors, we can do more to bridge the gap so they can focus their problem-solving and creative energy elsewhere.

Here are a few takeaways from the past year where college success programs can offer robust support moving forward.

The Digital Divide

Then: Many college students rely on the high-speed internet available on campus, and when colleges closed last spring, students were left struggling to find an alternative. But professors expected students to shift quickly to online lectures and video discussion groups. To tap into campus Wi-Fi, some students even attended lectures in the backseat of their cars — hardly ideal study conditions.

Now: Colleges across the country are planning for an in-person fall semester, and we’re hopeful that students will be able to return to the resources available on campus. But the digital divide was never limited to internet access. In a new report, Inside Higher Ed points to a recent survey which found that students of color and students from low-income families were more likely to have older devices in less than optimal condition. It’s hard to submit a heavy homework file on a spotty signal, or to take class notes on a laptop if the battery dies after 20 minutes.

Consider purchasing the essential technology that students need for success in their majors, including laptops and portable Wi-Fi devices, or set up a loaner program they can tap into in case of an emergency.

Mental Health

Then: Many Americans have struggled with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions amid the isolation, loss, and uncertainty of the past year. Adding to these stressors, some college students faced a lifestyle adjustment moving back home or taking on new responsibilities contributing to the household or helping to cover expenses. Campus-based mental health services experienced increased demand and, in some cases, reduced capacity as colleges closed their doors, limiting the resources and support available to students.

Now: Mental health was already a growing concern on college campuses prior to the pandemic, with an increasing number of students seeking help. A 2019 study by the American College Health Association found that within the previous 12 months, over 45% of students had felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, and over 65% reported overwhelming anxiety. Mental health struggles can impact a student’s overall well-being and their ability to stay on track towards their educational and career goals.

To support students’ mental wellness, partner with a teletherapy service like BetterHelp, which offers flexible online counseling with a licensed therapist. Advisors should also be prepared to refer students to appropriate resources in an emergency; employee assistance programs (EAPs) like ComPsych and Alliance Work Partners provide 24-7 access to mental health professionals. College success programming should also normalize discussion of mental wellness by offering workshops on topics like stress management and self-care and sharing related content through newsletters and social media.

Learn how surveys can help your program understand students’ mental health needs and build a support strategy: How to Use Surveys to Support College Student Mental Health.

Emergency Funds

Then: Campus closures last March meant that students needed to get home or find off-campus living arrangements immediately. Many schools were shutting down over the course of a weekend and students couldn’t afford last-minute airfare and relocation expenses. Over time, they would face additional financial concerns: Is it still safe for me to go to work? What if I lose my job? How can I help my parents cover expenses? For many students, emergency funds provided financial relief and peace of mind in a time of crisis.

Now: Even without the increased hardship of the pandemic, unexpected expenses can have a catastrophic impact on a student’s journey to a degree. Missing a deadline on a tuition payment plan can mean losing a whole semester of work. Not being able to afford a car repair can leave a student without reliable transportation to school. When hours are reduced at work, the car breaks down, or there’s a medical emergency — it can feel next to impossible to bounce back.

Setting up an emergency fund can go a long way toward safeguarding a student’s future. Even $500 can have a huge impact on their ability to stay in school and earn the college degree that will help them secure greater prosperity for themselves and their families.

As students complete this first year of college during COVID and prepare to return to campuses across the country this fall, we should resist returning to the old way of doing things. That was then — this is now. The pandemic has made it clear that many students lack the support system that makes college possible for so many of their peers. College success programs must evolve programming to address the everyday needs that can block the path. Together, we can support more deserving students along the journey to a college degree.

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