Vulnerable students will need high-touch support this fall, experts say

Colleges and universities are grappling with how to reopen campuses in ways that both minimize the spread of COVID-19 and meet the needs of vulnerable students—all on a limited budget.

Students with financial troubles, chronic health conditions, compromised immune systems, and disabilities “face unprecedented risks—to their well-being and to their education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes. Add in uncertainty about enrollment, the pandemic’s trajectory, and college finances, and planning “becomes pretty complex,” Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told The Chronicle. “It’s hard to conceive of a disruption that operates on so many levels.”

Balancing health recommendations with student needs

Recognizing that students and professors will have varying comfort levels when it comes to in-person classes, the American College Health Association has recommended a hybrid approach to instruction. Offering digital and in-person options for class participation would give students flexibility to choose how they engage and would ensure professors are positioned to adapt quickly if there is a resurgence of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, issued guidance last week advising colleges to close communal spaces like dormitories, communal kitchens, and dining halls.

But experts say that those residential and dining guidelines do not account for the needs of low-income students who rely on their colleges for safe housing, food security, internet access, income, and even an escape from virus hot zones in their hometowns. Limiting or eliminating resources could “exacerbate disparities for low-income students,” reports Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Any changes to campus services will require colleges to rethink how they support vulnerable student populations.

Preparing for the ‘high-touch’ model of higher education

“The decision to shut down campus as a response to a global public health crisis was the right decision,” said Anthony Jack, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But that does not mean that food and housing insecurity, economic scarcity, is not a fundamental problem.” 

Related: How will colleges’ coronavirus response affect underserved students? >

Looking toward the fall, Jack recommends that administrators use a “high-touch model,” in which university staff proactively approach each student individually to ask them what they need and tell them what is available, based on their financial aid package. He cautions against waiting for low-income students to reach out, noting that vulnerable students are less likely to know what resources are available. “[I]f you wait to help students who ask for help, you will be privileging those who typically come from more privileged backgrounds,” Jack says.

However, “when finances are tight and faculty and staff members are already working overtime, even accommodating well-resourced, healthy, and able-bodied students will be a challenge,” notes The Chronicle. To ensure that even less-resourced institutions can help students thrive and succeed, colleges should consider forming regional partnerships between institutions with small endowments and those with ample resources, or with local companies, W. Carson Byrd, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Learning isn’t just about your coursework,” says Byrd. “It’s also about all the support systems colleges can provide.”

Meeting varied academic, technology needs

To promote an equitable learning experience, colleges must ensure that online classes match the quality of in-person classes, writes The Chronicle. That means planning for the needs of students of different abilities, including deaf students who may require interpreters for Zoom discussion rooms, students with learning or attention disorders who need accommodations on timed tests, and blind students using screen-reader software. 

Institutions also will need to make sure students have the technology and internet access required to fully engage. Computer labs likely will have to limit the number of occupants under social distancing guidelines, increasing the need for alternative Wi-Fi and technology access.

Scheduling is another consideration, as some students will benefit from a structured, synchronous class schedule, while others, often those juggling homeschooling, child care, and job responsibilities, may need more flexibility.

With students learning from various locations and in various ways, some colleges may increase their use of student success platforms that track students’ engagement and alert advisors when students veer off-track. Online courses will need to incorporate paths to tutoring and career and academic advising services.

Ramping up health services

Colleges are also questioning whether and how they should create separate campus re-opening guidance for students with underlying health conditions. “I don’t know that we can send letters to students and say, ‘Those with certain conditions cannot return,’” says Reginald Fennell, a professor of public health emeritus at Miami University, in Ohio. “As a student, I would want to know, how did you get that information?”

Given that many students rely on campus health centers as their primary care providers, health centers are preparing for a higher volume of patients. The University of Colorado at Boulder is hiring additional staff for contract-tracing and investing $15 million in its health center, says Patrick O’Rourke, interim executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer. Other colleges, such as Los Rios Community College and Duke University, are contracting with telemedicine providers to help students who do not feel comfortable entering a crowded health center or who need to talk to a counselor outside of regular business hours.

Providing for housing and food security

Basic needs insecurity also will be a key area of focus as families contend with increased financial strain. Jack advises that, as campuses restrict dorm occupancy, they should direct housing opportunities to students who may struggle with internet access or lack safe, stable home environments. And while well-resourced institutions may be able to retrofit dining halls for delivery and takeout to ensure ready access to food, others may need to focus on highlighting community resources like food banks and and “reach out to students who may need help in ways that don’t feel stigmatizing.”  

Helping existing and newly low-income students understand how to find and access resources will be critical, experts say. “Every college should be absolutely certain that every student knows how to access unemployment insurance, knows whether they’re eligible for a stimulus check, and how to connect with [nutrition assistance] programs like SNAP and WIC,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

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