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How lessons from the pandemic will shape colleges of the future

Stories & Case Studies
March 25, 2021

Last week, the 2021 NASPA Virtual Community Colleges Institute, a pre-conference experience designed by and for community college members of the organization, provided an opportunity engage with colleagues serving in student affairs or service capacity at the community colleges and open-enrollment institutions from across the country. ATD President and CEO Dr. Karen A. Stout provided the keynote to set the tone for the virtual event.

In her remarks, Looking Ahead: Post-Pandemic Community College, Dr. Stout described the evolving student success agenda, shared student voices, and provided examples of new lessons of successful colleges. For example, successful colleges:

  • Build strong fundamentals and know that this commitment is enduring
  • Adopt an organizing framework (culture and context matters) to bring alignment to all the work necessary to advance accelerated improvements.
  • Advance their own unique theory of change (culture and context matters) around the lever that will drive scaled gains at their institution.
  • Move with pace and a sense of urgency.

Just as the pandemic has revealed and exacerbated many underlying inequities in higher education, it has also created an opportunity for community colleges to address these inequities through radical transformations that place equity and student success at the heart of their work.

In working with its 300+ network colleges, ATD learned that to effectively support students, colleges must understand who their students are and how that impacts their experiences in higher education.  To underscore how critical it is to center students in this important work, Dr. Stout shared a video of 2019 DREAM Scholar Ahmat Djouma reading his “I Am From” poem.

Video: Students bring their whole selves with them onto campus. 2019 DREAM Scholar Ahmat Djouma shared his own experiences with access and belonging at the DREAM 2019 conference in Long Beach, CA.

Reflecting on her own career into and through student affairs, Dr. Stout noted how the early phases of the student success movement focused on changes led by student affairs professionals – new orientation programs, changes in registration policies and practices, and the addition of nonacademic supports like success coaches. But, she added, the next phase of reform already influenced by COVID requires new thinking and continuing leadership from student affairs professionals who must connect and integrate their work with faculty-led  reforms of teaching and learning.

Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic

After 2020, colleges acutely understand that academic, financial, and life supports are more critical than ever for students to succeed. ATD has been supporting colleges in redesigning their advising and student supports since 2004, using a comprehensive method that combines coaching, networking, and resources tailored to each college’s needs and goals. In our recent work, ATD has found the following:

1. Advising redesign cannot be done effectively in isolation. Student-centered approaches to advising must be holistic, taking into account the many ways that advising impacts and is impacted by other services and departments at the institution.

2. Equity is central to the design and delivery of advising and other student supports. We must acknowledge systemic inequity within higher education and identify existing practices and policies that may be negatively affecting minoritized students. Without this intentional focus on equity, we could be reinforcing racist or classist cultures on campus.

3. Technology can be a game changer in advising and student supports when used effectively. Throughout the pandemic, colleges’ adoption of tech solutions has shown that higher education has enormous capacity to continue using technology to support and maintain relationships with students in new ways. Technology also equips colleges with data on how their students are experiencing college, allowing them to make more informed and equity-minded decisions.

4. We need to think differently about our access agenda. Where are college leaders finding barriers, such as transit access, childcare, and teaching schedules — and how can they implement changes that support student success? This includes a greater focus on equity, with colleges asking themselves how their policies, processes, and culture may affect enrollment or retention for certain students and communities.

5. Cultivating a sense of belonging among our students will be critical in the return to campus. When students worry about belonging and something goes wrong – for example, if processes are littered with unnecessary hurdles or jargon — it can seem like proof that they don’t belong. College policies, processes, and interactions with students need to reinforce that they do belong at every step of the way.

6. Community colleges must leverage their localness to meet the needs of students and communities. Both within and outside the ATD Network, community colleges are uniquely situated to create pathways to meaningful, sustaining careers for America’s learners. They have to be at the center of our thinking for policies, programs, and practices that champion students and lift up communities.

ATD Network colleges have shown their resilience more conclusively than ever over the last year and are uniquely positioned to realize this moment of opportunity to radically reimagine how they serve their students going forward. This transformation should be guided by equity-minded design practices that put the student experience and the student voice at the center of the work.

A call to action by student affairs professionals

COVID has changed student expectations as well as heightened our awareness of what they need to be successful. Students want and need physical and universal remote access to services and our systems and our policies will require more than just updating – most will need to be reimagined, with student affairs professionals playing a leadership role in this next phase of reform work.

Just a few of the areas where leadership from student affairs professionals will be critical are:

  • Enrollment services: testing, placement, advising, and career supports. Our policies and practices need reexamination with an equity lens – who has easy access to our institutions and who does not? Who is guided to programs of study that lead to jobs with family sustaining wages and who is not? What are we doing to reach deeper into our communities to attract disconnected youth and adult learners needing retraining or advanced training?
  • Financial support: The infusion of CARE dollars as well as private gifts, and College Promise initiatives offer an opportunity to create financial services hubs that provide students with both predictable financial support and emergency financial aid.
  • New partnerships with community-based organizations are needed to braid seamless supports together for students.
  • A new vision of community colleges as hubs of learning, credentialing, and economic mobility that eliminate inequities in educational and workforce outcomes will require new thinking about partnerships with four-year institutions and early and continuing career supports that guide students through attainment of advance credentials and family supporting jobs.
  • Continuing budget pressures may lead to integration of back-office functions with other campuses and colleges; many could be in the area of student services.
  • The emerging world of equating credentials with college credit and the impact on the outdated transcript evaluations plus the acceptance of bachelor’s degree completion as an outcome for the student success work will force a new way of thinking about the concept of transfer fairs—all of which will require thought leadership from student affairs as well as faculty and administration.

ATD releases new guidebook this spring

Through the Advising Success Network (ASN) in partnership with NASPA, Achieving the Dream created a guidebook to help college leaders know their students more deeply and learn how to use those data to make the structural, process, and attitudinal changes needed to better serve those students.

ATD’s Understanding and Designing for Your Student Population Guidebook, which will be released this spring, examines:

  • What it means to really know your students,
  • What data points are useful,
  • How these data can be used effectively,
  • Challenges you might encounter, and
  • What is known about how to overcome these challenges?
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