Virtual Advising for College Persistence: How to Best Support Your Students 

Adjusting to life in the era of COVID-19 has been challenging for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for students from low-income backgrounds and those already at risk of not completing their college degrees.

Almost immediately, the pandemic upended these students’ entire lives. As campuses closed, many found themselves without housing — some hundreds of miles from home, without the funds for a last-minute plane ticket back.

As an advisor and alumni success professional working remotely, your first job was to ensure students had access to basic needs, like transportation to a safe environment, food, a laptop, and an internet connection. Now, as we enter the summer months and prepare for a new school year, it’s time to shift your role to helping students navigate the uncertainty ahead.

Virtual advising was an important tool for connecting with students and building relationships even before coronavirus rocked our world. But, today, it’s become vital to college success.

Why is virtual advising integral to college persistence?

Using digital tools to connect with alumni is nothing new.

For several years, advisors have been leveraging email, text messaging, and social media to connect with students. (After all, you know this generation of digital natives is often more likely to respond to a social media direct message than a request for a visit or phone call).

But virtual advising is about more than a simple check-in — it’s about building and maintaining long-term relationships, identifying early signs a student is at risk, and taking a proactive approach to college persistence. And today, when social distancing eliminates opportunities for events and in-person conversations, it’s the only way you can ensure the students you support are staying on track.

What do you need to be successful with virtual advising?

There are three elements to successful virtual advising:

The right technology

As the virus took hold and schools shut down, teams who weren’t already accustomed to an entirely virtual approach were forced to cobble together a solution. Often, this means using text messaging, email, social media, and video conferencing tools, but without any centralized tracking system.To scale your success and boost cross-team efficiency, you need a way to integrate your communications. GradSnapp provides one way to bring together disparate systems so you can see who has engaged with a student, when, and how, and track ongoing performance.

A consistent strategy

Consistency is critical. That means making sure to reach out, follow up with students regularly, and keep messaging cohesive across channels. This is much simpler when you have insight into what your fellow advisors are doing, and can easily pick up where someone else left off (which often happens when sharing or transferring caseloads.)

The ability to adapt

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that flexibility is essential. It can be scary to step outside the methods and processes you’re accustomed to and learn new ways of working. But while it can be challenging to manage the learning curve that accompanies new technologies and systems, doing so will equip you for our more digitally focused future.

How can you make sure you’re providing all the support students need?

This is an overwhelming time for you as well as the students you serve. Here are a few ways you can ensure you’re giving students the right support:

Ask students what they need

It’s easy to make assumptions about why a student is struggling, but it’s much better to ask. When you ask them specifically what they need, you can better tailor your response. In some cases, that may be access to information or resources. In other cases, they may want to talk through their challenges and get advice on managing their course load or obtaining more financial aid.

Meet them where they are

Not every student will be responsive to one way of communicating, so it’s important to identify what works best for each individual. For example, some students may prefer Facebook Messenger to a WebEx or Zoom call. Being flexible will help you overcome barriers to communication.

Don’t neglect self-care

You can’t solve every problem, and you can’t control students’ decisions. As an advisor, it’s easy to overlook your own needs and forget to set boundaries — especially in times of uncertainty. But, as the old adage says, you can’t pour from an empty cup. By focusing on self-care and staving off burnout, you can continue providing the active support your students need.

Summer has always been a challenging season for managing college persistence, and COVID-19 isn’t doing us any favors. But, by leveraging the right virtual advising technology and processes, you can ensure you’re doing everything you can to support students on their path to college success.

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