In Challenging Times, Relationships Keep Students Engaged in College Learning
Many of the students who walk through the doors of community colleges have already been told they are not college material. Or they are experiencing circumstances that can easily discourage or prevent them from succeeding. Nevertheless, these students bring with them their hopes and aspirations—and are depending on college faculty and staff to help them find success.
That’s never been more true than during the COVID-19 pandemic. For nearly 20 years, the Center for Community College Student Engagement has been sharing insights about the student experience to help community college leaders guide students toward successful completion. In late spring of 2020, the center offered an online survey focused on how students were managing all the changes brought about by the pandemic. The resulting data showed that many students struggled with feelings of isolation, loss of income, and a lack of technology.
And Black or African American students experienced more challenges and concerns than others. For instance, 36 percent of Black or African American students said accessing a reliable computer or laptop was a challenge, compared with 24 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students and 14 percent of white students. Even more alarming is that 67 percent of Black or African American students expressed concern about having enough food for themselves and/or their family, compared with 60 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students and 44 percent of white students. Even higher percentages of students were concerned about paying utility bills and paying their rent or mortgage.
The pandemic has amplified the inequities that already existed for many students, and it has become clear that colleges must dig deeper to understand the life barriers that affect their students. While colleges can’t solve all of the problems their students encounter, they can work to ensure that students have interpersonal foundations that are essential to their success. They can also help their students understand what they are working toward and assist them in developing a plan to get there. While developing relationships and the work of advising may look different in the virtual world, they remain essential.
The Importance of People and Plans
More than 15 years of our focus group findings show that relationships and a sense of belonging can make the difference between a student staying in college and leaving. When students participating in focus groups are asked if they have ever considered dropping out of college, many say they have. And when they are asked what helped them stay, student answers, almost without exception, are about relationships.
One student said this of an encounter with a faculty member after missing a class: “I ran into [the instructor] ... and he says, ‘Where were you? I was worried. I was actually worried because that's not like you. You're not a person that would miss class just out of the blue.’”
Creating deeper relationships with students entails that we understand the circumstances that may prevent them from succeeding. A recent report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement highlights the importance of college faculty and staff talking with students about their working lives. For instance, when instructors know how many hours per week their students work, those students are much more engaged and, as a result, on a path to success. Yet 83 percent of working students in their first term in college report that their instructors don’t know how much they work.
Similarly, the importance of students having an academic plan cannot be understated. Institutions undertaking guided pathways reform efforts help students explore career interests early so that they have a clear idea of where they are headed and exactly what they have to do to get there. This type of academic planning provides students with a roadmap for success. And if students fall off their paths, there are supports built in along the way to reorient them.
As one student said of guided pathways, “I get a call from my advisor. ‘You’re off track. Do you know you’re off track? ... OK. Come see me.’ ... The advisor really is the one who checks on me.”
Another student refers to those supports as safety nets: “There are a lot of safety nets. ... Your teachers. The counseling. Your advisors. Everyone has a hand. If you’ve fallen down, everyone helps pick you back up. There are so many safety nets and contingency safety nets. The support system is really great here.”
Community colleges are charged with educating a diverse population of students with varying goals and competing demands on their time. And while community colleges have long proven themselves as agile—shifting to meet both the needs of students and an evolving employment market—the current state of declining enrollments and uncertainty about when students can return to campus classrooms calls for a new kind of agility.
It’s certainly a big ask, but it might be encouraging for colleges to know that two or so months into the pandemic, when many students must have felt as if the rug had been pulled right out from under them, the overwhelming majority—88 percent—agreed that their college was supportive of them.
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.