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The Next Big Crisis Higher Education is Facing No One is Talking About (Yet)

When we blew the whistle on the college completion crisis it was with the understanding that there are real challenges facing today’s students that a single institution may not be able to solve. Launching the EdSighters community and The Student Persistence Study (which will now reach over 500,000 students) are two very early ways that we here at EdSights are working to build a community to solve this challenge.

Unfortunately, there is another crisis looming that has the ability to further compound the problem — an economic recession.

Higher education has weathered the storm of recessions in the past. In fact, we know that during events like recessions, college enrollment can be counter-cyclical to the economy. For example, community college enrollment surged during the 2008 economic downturn.

Other economic events like The Great Depression and passing of the GI Bill have all served as inflection points for higher education institutions, creating unique challenges and opportunities that not only impact enrollment but also (and more importantly) shape the drivers impacting student attainment and persistence.

Key Drivers Impacting Student Persistence

With nearly 40% of college students experiencing depression and 34% reporting anxiety, mental health continues to be a key driver impacting student persistence. While some investments have been made in supporting students facing mental health challenges, it is unclear how students will respond in the aftermath of the isolation felt during the COVID-19 pandemic when faced with additional challenges posed by a recession, such as losing a job.

Additionally, nearly 40% of students at two- or four-year institutions report experiencing food insecurity and one study found that roughly 1 in 3 students faced housing insecurity during the pandemic. The challenge to fill basic needs will only be exacerbated in the event of a recession.

How to Prepare to Support Students During a Recession

Higher education institutions have a unique role to play in the event of a recession. There is a real opportunity to provide skills training and career preparation; however, the challenge is that students enrolling during this recession are coming in with a unique combination of mental health and financial instability that we haven’t seen before due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that traditional measures used to predict student persistence will not be appropriate in the post-pandemic world, especially during a recession.

In a recent conversation with Dr. Vincent Tinto, we discussed the need to incorporate real-time input from students when deciding how to best support students. The challenge, of course, is collecting that data at scale and leveraging it to identify the right interventions at the right time. Fortunately, there are many institutions who are already demonstrating how this can be done.

Institutions Addressing Key Persistence Drivers

We recently showcased how the University of West Georgia tackled mental health issues facing their students. One of the largest challenges when trying to support students is ensuring they are aware of the resources available to them, and UWG’s approach, driven by a research-backed methodology for engaging students via AI and SMS, helped connect students to the appropriate mental health resources when they needed them. This led to a decline in students reporting mental health challenges by 20%.

San Jose City College used student input from over 22,000 text messages to identify issues impacting student persistence. Most notably, they discovered approximately one in four students experienced financial distress in large part due to COVID-19. Additionally, Black/African American students were 10% more likely than their peers to experience challenges with housing or food insecurity. While uncovering this data, SJCC’s AI chatbot, powered by EdSights, simultaneously connected more than 100 students with resources to combat food insecurity. This led to an increase in positive student perception of the institution.

Start Building Your Student Success Plan

Historically, higher education institutions have been reactive to crises. Recent examples include the pivot to virtual events for admissions recruitment at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even demographic shifts impacting traditional enrollment that have been forecasted for years have caught many institutions flat-footed.

Students enrolling during a recession will have unique challenges with mental health and financial instability that most institutions are not prepared to address alone. The time to address this challenge is now. Waiting for more waves of layoffs and the forthcoming lift in enrollment will overload student support systems. Parallels can be drawn to recruiting in new international markets or reaching out to traditionally under-served student populations. It isn’t enough to simply enroll students from these populations. It is important to have the infrastructure in place to ensure their success.

If my team can be of any support during this critical time, please do not hesitate to contact me directly. We are here to tackle the key issues driving the college completion crisis and are ready to get to work with you.

By Carolina Recchi

Co-Founder and CEO at EdSights

Carolina moved to the US from Italy at 17 for college. As a first-generation US college student she experienced first-hand the hurdles of navigating higher education. Not knowing who to turn to for help as a student, she decided to build a technology that helps all students navigate college. Today, EdSights works with ~100 institutions and Carolina was named by Forbes one of the most influential people in education.


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If you haven’t already, learn how we’re tackling the college completion crisis with our unique combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), SMS texting and machine learning by setting up a demo below.



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