The college experience is undergoing a major transformation. From remote classes to social distancing, COVID-19 has introduced dramatic changes to the traditional student lifestyle that will likely have a significant impact for years to come.
Although colleges can’t control these changes, they can be proactive in creating meaningful experiences for their students. By ensuring student communities feel connected and cared for, higher education institutions can continue to lead the charge forward into this radical new era.
Here, we discuss how schools can demonstrate caring for their students in a more impactful way during the ongoing pandemic.
Help Students Gear Up for a Modern Workforce
Over the past few years, the job market has faced tremendous disruption due to the explosive growth in trends such as remote work, business process automation and the growing gig economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated these trends, and graduating students must now consider their potential career opportunities more carefully than ever before.
Quality student career services have remained a top priority for many students but without direct and regular access, they’re left feeling increasingly anxious. As a result, some students are choosing to delay or forgo graduate programs, citing a lack of confidence in their college’s ability to facilitate partnerships with their industries of interest.
In one such instance, a student, Divya Mirlay, decided to defer her admission to an overseas writing program by several months. She stated:
“They offered us an online alternative but didn’t go into much detail about what that would look like... what would’ve made me feel better is if they gave me a detailed road map and said things like: here’s how the school will help you make industry connections if internships aren’t possible for the next eight months— here’s what’s going to happen instead.”
Universities have been so busy focusing on effectively communicating their COVID-19 responses, that pivoting to help students navigate this new job market hasn’t exactly been top-of-mind. Although universities are stretched thin, quickly adapting career services to the changing environment will be critical to long-term student retention.
A New Landscape for Career Services
Ultimately, universities are going to have to get creative with their approach to career planning. While social distancing efforts are certainly a major inconvenience, schools still have numerous options for helping to properly equip students for post-university life. Online job fairs, small group career workshops and virtual mock interviews are all initiatives that could help smooth the transition into the workforce, and a digital-first approach has the potential to allow schools to serve more students than ever before.
In addition to digitizing traditional career-building functions, a number of startups have surfaced with innovative ideas for strengthening students’ skills for new dynamics in the workforce. Home From College, for example, has built a platform that allows students to try their hand at working in the expanding gig economy.
Rather than semester-long internships, Home From College prepares students for future short-form content careers, connecting them to a stream of project-based roles and experiences. The core value of this solution is that it enables students to build their portfolios with a variety of digitally-native opportunities— available right at their fingertips— rather than committing them to a lengthy internship that may not succeed in delivering the same value. This curriculum is also far more aligned with skill sets the majority of companies need today and provides students with the most relevant tools necessary to succeed in a modern career.
Extend Opportunities for Critical Connections
In addition to shifts in the organizational structure of the workforce, the emotional and interpersonal implications of this new paradigm are equally critical for schools to consider. As a result of social distancing, many students are struggling to build meaningful connections with peers. This can result in the development of a mental illness for those who might normally flourish or advance the symptoms for students who are already struggling.
Beyond socializing for personal relationships, it’s also becoming increasingly difficult for students to connect with their administration, advisors and counselors now that their time spent on campus has been severely limited or even eliminated altogether.
In both cases, many colleges are struggling to offer opportunities for connecting with one another, yet there are a number of digital alternatives that provide great options. For example, universities can organize virtual icebreakers for students to meet one another in their dormitories. If students are permanently off-campus, they can virtually participate through their majors, clubs or greek life communities.
The most tech-savvy advisors are also leveraging social media to their advantage and engaging with their student communities through the platforms they use on a daily basis. Through Instagram Live, these staff members are answering FAQs from their students or conducting “Ask Me Anything” events regarding topics like motivation, college readiness and study habits.
Adapt Without Compromising Traditional College Experiences
As a result of the pandemic, administrators are being forced to adapt to new channels for networking and socializing on campus, but it’s also important that higher education institutions focus on finding ways to salvage beloved college experiences and traditions.
Perhaps one of the most memorable traditions during one’s college career is when graduation day inevitably arrives. While 2020 graduates were forced to face significantly different commencement ceremonies this year, that didn’t impede some university planners from flexing their creative muscles and planning an unforgettable experience. John Hopkins University utilized an internal crowdsourcing website to engage graduating students and asked how they could make their graduations special. Two ideas that arose were to incorporate student photos and videos into the virtual ceremony and create an online “yearbook” page for each undergraduate student. The university decided to do both.
Athens State University has also taken an impressive lead with adapting to the modern times. After partnering with EdSights, they are utilizing a chatbot to create and share communications on upcoming webinars, finance workshops, virtual job fairs and even film festivals.
While former attempts to spread the word about these events were challenging, the chatbot provides a solution that feels more inclusive and facilitates better communication all around. Athens State students have reported being far more aware of upcoming remote social engagement opportunities and as a result, have dramatically improved event attendance metrics even when compared to the previous in-person attendance rates.
Modernize Networking Events
With the rapidly changing job market, it has become more critical than ever for students to network, both professionally and personally. Consequently, colleges must help to facilitate experiences that would normally happen organically. Essentially, it falls on administrators to construct these events themselves, engineering their own unique forms of spontaneous virtual encounters.
Rather than attempting to recreate traditional experiences, higher education must adapt them to a contemporary social landscape, tuning each one in response to feedback from their students. In doing so, colleges can preserve the magic of the university experience, while simultaneously ensuring the safety and satisfaction of their communities.
Shed Light On The Murky Middle
Now more than ever, universities need to view the global pandemic as a way to focus their attention on their most at-risk students, otherwise known as the “murky middle.”
This “murky middle” demographic is extremely diverse and may include disabled students, older adults, first-generation college students and introverted individuals. It’s important to note that this segment of the population is on the rise and, for the first time, universities have the opportunity to prioritize academic and social experiences for these students.
In the past, many of these students weren’t the most proactive in asking for help, seeking out social opportunities or partaking in campus experiences. Thanks to an abundance of virtual classes and online social gatherings, however, we’re now seeing more engagement from non-traditional students. The low-pressure nature of online events helps ensure they feel comfortable, increasing their willingness to get involved. Essentially, virtual engagement has become the great equalizer for diverse student communities.
As a result, it is essential for schools to have an effective communication strategy that serves all types of students, allowing staff to reach and accommodate them as directly and impactfully as possible. Serving these students isn’t just critical for universities; it’s critical for the future of our workforce. We want this population of people to persist and succeed in college as one day, these individuals are going to add much-needed diversity to the workplace.
Request Frequent and Crucial Feedback
When considering how schools can demonstrate caring for their students, remember this above all else: students want to feel (and be) heard. That’s why it’s critical for universities to continuously ask their students for feedback in authentic, approachable ways in order to better guide them. This can be accomplished through a variety of ways such as workshops, focus groups or student engagement committees, to name a few.
SMS chatbot solutions can make it much easier for institutions to gain more invaluable feedback and actionable insights. By serving as a 24/7 virtual companion to a school’s students (no matter who they are or where they’re located), chatbots can aid with student engagement in even the most challenging environments.
EdSights is a leader in this field. With a proven record of increased retention across multiple universities and robust dashboards for tracking trends within their student communities, EdSights enables vast improvements across the spectrum of the student experience.
While this pandemic has certainly presented institutions with a number of difficult challenges, COVID-19 could still, in some ways, be viewed as an asset for universities. Higher education will be able to gauge their success during the global pandemic through their ability to more effectively connect with their students, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, ethnicity or physical capabilities, enabling them to act immediately on the issues that matter most. With a chatbot partner like EdSights, universities can express their humanity through technology and gain invaluable insights during a time when it’s needed most.