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Creating an Ethos of Care: Retaining Students During COVID-19

The pandemic and the move online it forced higher institutions to make have had positive consequences, too. Online student supports have been ramped up and effective, so much that some schools plan on keeping them in place post-crisis. 

The pandemic has removed normalcy from our lives and continues to drive change in higher education. Fall enrollment numbers for new and returning students top the list of concerns at most institutions. The media has cast these enrollment concerns as purely monetary – institutions need students and revenue to remain financially viable. Although the financial challenges associated with lower enrollments are real, and in some cases dire, they represent only part of the issue. Regardless of size or type, colleges and universities have a common mission of educating students for citizenship, leadership and professional pursuits. When students stop or drop out, the effect on their lives can be widespread and long-lasting.

We assert that retention concerns are about far more than the bottom line. At Georgia State University, and at many institutions throughout the country, retention efforts represent an ethos of care for both student success and well-being. The Georgia State student population is one of the most diverse in the country. Nearly 60% receive Pell Grants, about 35% are first-generation students, and more than 65% come from under-represented groups. These student populations often face greater learning challenges as a result of the shift to distance learning during COVID-19.  Reduced income from the loss of on and off-campus employment, family health disparities associated with lower socioeconomic and minority status, crowded or less safe home environments, added care-giving responsibilities and limited access to technology have a cumulative effect on students’ anxiety and stress levels, and their opportunities to productively engage in learning activities. 

The promise of higher education is that it will create equal opportunity. A college education is supposed to produce a wider array of career opportunities. Too often this promise goes unfulfilled because of equity gaps in which Pell-eligible, low-income and minority students graduate at rates well below that of the student body overall. However, at Georgia State achievement gaps have been eliminated.  For the past six years, African American, Latinx, and Pell-eligible students have, on average, all graduated at or above overall student body rates—making Georgia State the only national public university to attain and sustain this goal.  Significantly, GSU ranks among the best in the nation at producing social mobility–a measure that indicates how well a school advances equity among their graduates from low-income families compared to those with stronger financial backgrounds.  Recently, US News and World Report ranked Georgia State eighth in the country on this indicator. 

Due to COVID, many institutions have realized the need to provide online support services for all of their students, so they can continue progress in their academic careers. Traditionally, the conversation about providing online access to services and resources has been the purview of distance education administrators, while student affairs administrators focused on providing in-person opportunities to campus students. With physical spaces closed, Georgia State’s student success and student affairs leadership quickly ramped up use of existing platforms and tools that were being used on a limited basis to complement in-person activities. The pandemic obliterated the false dichotomy too often drawn between the support needs of online and on-campus students.  The systems and capacity that Georgia State developed to serve students before the pandemic enabled it to continue to serve them during the pandemic, despite the change in modality.

For example, Georgia State University is well known for its proactive and data-driven approach to academic advising.  In the last academic year, nearly 90,000 in-person appointments were made in response to academic alerts received by advisors that student could be going off the proper academic path. How could this level of proactive intervention continue in the virtual world? Using the same platform, advisors were able to pivot from in-person to online sessions, hosting more than 22,000 meetings with students between the middle of March 2020 and the end of the school term. Similarly, Georgia State’s extensive use of data and analytics for proactive interventions enabled the university to develop additional metrics to monitor engagement as it transitioned to online instruction. Students who did not log onto their courses were contacted, encouraged to participate and offered computers and hotspots to bridge any digital divide. Under unprecedented circumstances, class attendance actually increased. Due to these efforts, at the end of the term, more than 98% of students were attending their courses and the grade point average for the semester increased compared to both spring and fall 2019.  

Because GSU had been using financial analytics to proactively award microgrants for tuition to students with unmet financial needs, the university was able to distribute over $26 million dollars in CARES ACT funding the day after the funds became available.  Additionally, the university used its knowledge base and developed an online process for triaging and answering financial aid and registration questions that resulted in a 7% decline in students with outstanding balances at the beginning of the fall term compared to last year. The university’s AI-enhanced chat bot–previously used to help overcome summer melt and enrollment issues–was helpful in gathering information about additional student needs. For example, when the university needed to know how many students might face hardship or even homelessness if the residence halls were closed, over 2,000 students responded in just eight seconds, allowing the university to adapt its processes to support them. Using systems to support students at a distance and continuing proactive interventions helped to reinforce a sense of community and give our students consistency during a challenging and uncertain time.   

Georgia State has learned that many of the best practices for online students are best practices for serving all students. Previously, we had offered online services in only modest ways; today they are being offered at scale. Students can get an answer to a question through the knowledge base, through the chat bot, can submit a ticket for a question, set up an online appointment or meet face-to-face. We have begun to integrate the kind of support that historically has been reserved primarily for students who learned at a distance. We won’t go back to earlier practices even after the pandemic, because we are serving students better using these methods.

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