In the wake of historic pandemic-related enrollment declines, postsecondary institutions have responded by developing and expanding innovative approaches to engaging learners. Higher education practitioners discussed these approaches at a virtual workshop hosted by Strada Education Network in October 2021, focusing on strategies for reconnecting recent high school graduates whose education was disrupted by the pandemic. Their practices align closely with what disrupted learners say would help reconnect them to higher education: guidance, affordability options, and a strong connection between education and career.1Nichole Torpey-Saboe and Melissa Leavitt, “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations,” Strada Education Network, June 23, 2021.
Workshop participants shared examples of their practices and offered insights and strategies for implementation. Encompassing a range of resources and services, these practices have the potential to engage and support students throughout their entire higher education journey. At their most effective, they weave together different strategies that combine guidance and advising with career exploration, and incorporate wraparound services into an integrated approach to student success. As such, many of these strategies have relevance for reconnecting disrupted learners at any stage of their education and career.
Launching these strategies has required institutions to mobilize coordinated responses across multiple internal functions as well as external partnerships with employers or community organizations. In doing so, practitioners have encountered challenges ranging from familiar hurdles, such as effectively operating across organizational silos, to new issues brought on by the pandemic, including how to sustain funding for newly launched practices.
Key principles for successfully implementing practices to reconnect students emerged throughout the workshop. Practitioners emphasized the importance of considering the holistic student experience, leveraging partnerships to coordinate and deliver services, and being willing to continually refine and adapt practices. In addition to these foundational strategies, insights from practitioners reflect the importance of considering the circumstances unique to each institution. Programs that meet the needs of a specific student population through tailored assistance programs, for example, or partner with local industries to offer targeted career development opportunities, provide on-the-ground examples of how to make these strategies relevant for specific contexts.
Strategies for successfully reconnecting students disrupted by the pandemic include holistically meeting the needs of students, leveraging partnerships to develop and deliver practices, and continually reassessing and refining what works.
Engaging students through a range of modalities, from virtual communication to in-person events, can help provide students with the guidance they need to navigate education decisions.
Integrating resources and support from community-based services, designating aid programs for specific student populations, and assisting students with financial aid applications are effective practices for helping students overcome a range of affordability challenges.
Short-term and career-focused training options can offer an entry point into postsecondary education for students who are focused on starting their careers.
The disruption and hardship caused by the pandemic also sparked creative and innovative approaches to reconnecting learners. Practitioners are now facing the challenge of sustaining these practices and continuing to build on what works.
The disruption to postsecondary education caused by the pandemic may have been sudden, but it will have enduring consequences for students and institutions. Campuses shut down and courses moved online in a matter of weeks (or over a weekend), while students who had mapped out their course and career plans had to rapidly adjust to unexpected circumstances and an uncertain future. More than 18 months later, postsecondary education has yet to recover. The number of students attending college continues to drop,2National Student Clearinghouse. “Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Regular Updates on Higher Education Enrollment.” October 26, 2021. resulting in a 6.5 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment and a 12.3 percent decline in first-year enrollment since 2019. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected, with Native American and Black students experiencing the steepest enrollment drops.3Ibid.
These declines reflect not only the challenges students experienced because of the pandemic, such as struggles with online education and financial uncertainty, but also students’ changing perspectives on postsecondary education. Responses to a nationally representative survey of high school graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who changed or delayed their plans for postsecondary education because of the pandemic revealed that stress, anxiety, and financial concerns were among the chief drivers of this disruption, and that guidance, resources to address affordability, and support with connecting college and career would help them reconnect.4Nichole Torpey-Saboe and Melissa Leavitt, “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations,” Strada Education Network, June 23, 2021. In-depth interviews with disrupted learners explored why these are such critical tools for reengaging learners, and how the pandemic has changed what they need and expect from postsecondary education. Their reflections conveyed a sense of agency and active decision making. Rather than taking a break from education, these disrupted learners are reconsidering and reconfiguring their plans to make the best decisions now to achieve their long-term education and career goals.5Melissa Leavitt and Elaine Leigh, “Listening to Recent High School Grads: ‘Be Mindful of What We Have Gone Through,’” Strada Education Network, September 29, 2021.
In the face of this disruption, institutions are launching and adapting innovative practices for reconnecting students. Their focus on engaging students shows immense dedication and resilience in the face of extremely challenging circumstances. Conducting an effective outreach and engagement strategy has required institutions to rapidly mobilize organization-wide approaches in response to the pandemic. Among the challenges practitioners have encountered in implementing these strategies is quickly coordinating new programs and practices involving multiple teams and departments, including leadership, faculty, and student services. As practitioners discussed, achieving this coordination was particularly challenging where practices needed to be aligned across many campuses or multiple institutions within a postsecondary system.
Aiding institutions in mobilizing new strategies to engage and support students were federal funding streams made available in response to the pandemic.6For example, the CARES Act included $3 billion for governors to spend on education through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, and about $12.5 billion to colleges through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. Bradley D. Custer, “5 Interesting Ways Governors Are Spending CARES Act GEER Funds on Higher Education.” Center for American Progress. October 26, 2020; Audrey Williams June, “Congress Gave Colleges Billions. Who Got What?” Chronicle of Higher Education. August 16, 2020. By acting quickly to deploy these resources, institutions were able to remove barriers to enrollment and connect students with newly available programs and resources. This success has come with new challenges, however, in finding ways to maintain these practices and results when the initial funding is no longer available.
As they work to meet students’ changing needs and expectations, practitioners also are adjusting to their own shifting circumstances, making quick pivots to ensure they can continue providing the services and opportunities students rely upon. In doing so, they are building a set of foundational strategies for overcoming challenges in implementation and continually improving practices in the areas of guidance, affordability, and connection to career.
Taking a holistic view of the student experience emerged as a key approach enabling institutions to connect with students. Understanding the nonacademic reasons driving students’ decisions to postpone enrollment led practitioners to adopt a mindset of meeting students where they are. In practice, this often means reaching students through high schools and community organizations, offering guidance to help students navigate education and career decisions, involving parents and families in engagement efforts, and providing students with resources and services to meet essential needs.
For many of the practices discussed, success was grounded in strong partnerships, both within the institution and between an institution and local employers and organizations. A focus on partnerships emerged as a valuable tool in sustaining effective engagement practices, by providing a strong foundation for effectively coordinating engagement strategies across multiple programs and departments. Partnerships with employers enabled institutions to provide career development opportunities for students, while partnerships with local organizations helped institutions connect students with services and resources.
Tying together many of the approaches practitioners discussed was a strong thread of learning and iteration. To identify promising approaches to pursue, gain the support of colleagues and partners, and begin to build evidence of what works, practitioners had to quickly assess and respond to the issues facing students and pivot as the situation required.
Promising practices for reconnecting students encompass vital services and support in the areas of guidance, affordability, and a strong connection to career, and look beyond enrollment to holistically support students’ education and career development. The following practices were discussed by practitioners who attended the October workshop on reconnecting recent high school graduates.
In discussing how to provide students with guidance to help them navigate their education and career options, practitioners stressed the importance of reaching students through a range of channels and modalities. Students get information from many sources, and email and even texting may not always be the best way to reach them. Moreover, if they leave high school without building a strong connection to higher education, it takes creative approaches to reach them in ways that feel relevant and empathetic to their lived experience. In interviews, students expressed a desire for tailored guidance that takes into account their individual goals and experiences in helping them choose the best path forward. As one student said, “it would be nice to actually give students the opportunity to actually explore themselves and actually make decisions based on oneself.”7Melissa Leavitt and Elaine Leigh, “Listening to Recent High School Grads: ‘Be Mindful of What We Have Gone Through,’” Strada Education Network, September 29, 2021. Institutions have found success in providing this guidance by reaching interested students through their high schools and other community organizations, adopting a personalized approach to student support, and creating a sense of belonging for students by engaging them in a range of activities and events.
Partner with high schools to build early awareness and interest in postsecondary education. Building relationships with local high schools can introduce students to postsecondary opportunities earlier and foster a sense of trust and continuity as students consider their plans after graduation.
St. Petersburg College in Florida conducts a high school engagement strategy that brings information and resources directly to high schools. The program, which was conducted virtually for the 2020-2021 school year and now has returned to in-person programming, begins with a fall application drive that provides assistance with completing applications and waives application fees. The outreach program also provides additional opportunities for students to stay connected to the college throughout the year.
The Embark program, sponsored by Maine Community College System, guides students through the high school-college transition. The program works with Maine students who may need additional support as they transition from high school to college and connects them to the career, academic, and financial resources they need for success in and beyond community college. Advisors travel to high schools to meet individually with students, creating personal relationships that students rely on during the transition to college. The program’s outcomes indicate that early advising and guidance have a lasting impact, as Embark students who enroll in community college are more likely to return for their second year and graduate on time.
The University of Alaska Middle College program enrolls participating high school students in college-level coursework. More than 300 students participate in the program, which is offered through two school districts connected to different campuses of the university system. Enrollment in the program grew by 15 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Students take classes on the university campus and graduate with credits they can put toward a degree. The program serves as a strong pipeline to college enrollment, with about 75 percent of participants applying to the university.
Provide personalized outreach and advising. Personalized outreach can be a powerful engagement tool for students who may be wondering whether a postsecondary institution’s programs are relevant to their aspirations and interests. For enrolled students, holistic coaching and advising offers a way to connect postsecondary education to their personal and professional goals.
North Central State College is building a strategy that takes a data-driven approach to engaging prospective students. Using information provided by applicants to indicate their programs of interest, the institution then works with those programs to conduct specific outreach to students.
In partnership with postsecondary institutions, InsideTrack’s holistic coaching supports students in making progress on their education and career pathways. InsideTrack is a nonprofit organization within the Strada Education Network that has provided holistic coaching to students since 2001. Coaches assess students’ interests, motivations, and needs, encompassing academic and non-academic experiences, and engage students in making a plan to achieve their goals.
Engage prospective students through a range of recruitment and community-building activities. As postsecondary institutions emerge from the pandemic and continue to navigate a combination of virtual, in-person, and hybrid gatherings, they can deepen their engagement with prospective students by connecting with them using a range of modalities. Inviting prospective students to engage with different aspects of academic and campus life also can build their “college knowledge” and broaden their understanding of what postsecondary education can offer.
As part of the ongoing activities through its high school recruitment strategy, St. Petersburg College offers a series of events to engage students and their families throughout the year, including information sessions, open houses, and social activities. Many outreach activities are focused on career exploration and planning, with the career team inviting prospective students to attend webinars and other events.
For St. Petersburg College, recruitment is an ongoing process that aims to build trust and a sense of belonging for students considering the institution. Jacob Wortock, director of recruitment services, describes it as a “series of opportunities for students to stay connected throughout the year.” The outreach and activities organized by Wortock and his team create a sense of continuity between the high school and college experience.
After a year of virtual programming, the college’s recruitment team is back to in-person engagement. College staff visit high schools to provide information and answer questions about the application process — and often find themselves answering questions about other institutions, Wortock said. Being a resource to share information about the college experience, regardless of which institution the student ultimately chooses, is a service that’s valued by high school staff and students, he noted.
That service goes beyond answering questions and helping with applications. The engagement strategy invites potential students and their families to engage in activities ranging from social events to workshops at the college. Some, like parent information sessions, are designed specifically for applicants. Others welcome potential students to take part in events and workshops alongside currently enrolled students.
Inviting potential students to participate in college programs broadens the audience for these activities without creating an additional burden for staff, Wortock explained. For example, when high schoolers and recent graduates take part in career exploration webinars and workshops, the career services team can reach more people with information and resources. The recruitment services team is continuing to work to keep students engaged by collaborating across campuses and programs.
For practitioners who joined the Strada workshop, providing students with services and affordability options means reducing the complexity of finding and securing financial resources. Institutions are addressing the challenges students experience in accessing supports including financial assistance, transportation, childcare, housing, food assistance, and other essential services. Different programs may have different eligibility criteria and require different applications, leaving many students uncertain about how to access services, or even unaware of what’s available. In interviews, students shared that they found the process of applying for aid “rather challenging,” and suggested that “making applying for scholarships guaranteed and easy to apply for” could make college a reality for more students.8Melissa Leavitt and Elaine Leigh, “Listening to Recent High School Grads: ‘Be Mindful of What We Have Gone Through,’” Strada Education Network, September 29, 2021. Partnering with community services and nonprofits to connect students with resources, developing designated supports for specific student populations, and providing hands-on assistance with aid applications are among the promising practices that help students overcome financial barriers.
Work with community and government partners to streamline access to services. Partnerships with government agencies, intermediary organizations, or local nonprofits can provide vital support to both institutions and students in building a network of wraparound services.
The City Cares program at Los Angeles City College provides a streamlined system for students to access a range of wraparound services, including textbooks, laptop computers, transportation, testing fees, course materials, and food and housing assistance. The program keeps the process simple for students, asking them to fill out only one form, while staff work to identify and braid together resources for students. The program served nearly 2,000 students in the first week alone, each requesting an average of four services.
Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services supports its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) clients in developing self-sufficiency using the Goal4It! model designed by Mathematica. The model, based on a similar program in Colorado, is a behavioral science-informed approach to achieving economic independence by working with individuals to set goals for overcoming barriers on the path to achieving their larger career goals. The barriers experienced often include finding resources for childcare, housing, and transportation. Louisiana began using the Goal4It! Model in June 2021, and partners with local community colleges, community based organizations, and workforce commissions to serve clients.
Lorain County Community College offers free childcare to students through its afterschool program, funded through a federal grant. The afterschool program was designed with input from LCCC students, and offers children ages 5-12 enrichment programs and activities. College alumni can continue to use the afterschool program for one term following the completion of their credential to support their transition into the workforce or additional schooling.
Tailor aid and assistance programs to specific student populations. Different student groups often have distinct needs for resources and financial assistance. Creating aid programs targeted toward student populations can help students overcome the specific financial barriers that could keep them from enrolling.
PathStone Corporation is a nonprofit organization that provides funding for training and employment services to populations including migrant farmworkers, low-income people age 55 and over, TANF recipients, young adults, and individuals that have, or had, criminal justice involvement. These funds, provided through multiple sources including the local, state, and federal government, can be utilized to cover educational fees as well as other expenses, including books, laptops, and legal and supportive services. As part of its services, PathStone stays engaged with students throughout the education and job search process and stays in touch for at least a year after students gain employment.
Adults with some college and no degree, and first-time, first-year students are two student groups who can access designated scholarships at the University of Alaska. The Seawolf Starts scholarship targets first-time freshmen through a $500 tuition scholarship which helped more than 150 students in the first year it was available. For adults with some college and no degree, the 49th Finishers scholarship offers $2,000 per year for full-time students, and $1,000 per year for part-time students.
Provide support and assistance with completing aid applications. Helping students complete complex financial aid applications can ensure that students take advantage of every available resource to help them enroll in and complete college.
The Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s FAFSA completion labs provided recent high school grads with assistance in completing federal financial aid applications. With funding through the National College Attainment Network and funded by the Kresge Foundation’s Education Program, the program brought experts to high schools to guide students through the application. The labs were publicized through social media and engaged community partners.
When Los Angeles City College launched a new hub for students to access essential services, it changed the name to get rid of the word “needs.” The new name, City Cares Network, replaced a focus on what students lack with the idea of a caring campus, explained Marcy Drummond, the college’s vice president for economic and social mobility innovation. The rebrand signaled an innovative approach to a new system of service delivery centered on the student experience.
City Cares Network takes into account the full spectrum of resources and assistance that enable students to thrive, encompassing everything from books and computers to transportation, food, and housing. The college already has seen strong persistence improvements for students who were provided food assistance in the past, with a 27 percent higher persistence rate for those who received this assistance compared with those who did not. With the expanded resources available through the City Cares Network, Drummond expects these persistence improvements to continue or even grow. Rather than expecting students to find help on their own, or even referring students to different programs, the college asks students to fill out just one form to request whatever resources they’re seeking. With that information, staff get to work on the back end to identify and braid together funding and services to meet student needs.
For students, it’s a seamless process that meets them where they are. “Students should not know that we’re working with five different organizations to connect them with resources,” Drummond said. For college staff, it takes an ongoing effort to build relationships with local organizations, work with funders to clarify and simplify eligibility requirements, and anticipate the best way to provide services and resources to students, whether online or in person. In its first week alone, City Cares Network served nearly 2,000 students.
As students weigh their decisions of when and where to continue their education, they’re paying close attention to opportunities for career development and preparation. Students are looking for career support that is woven into guidance and advising, and offers some measure of security in an uncertain economy. As one student said, “I want to know that I have the security in that school that if I need extra help, or if … it’s certain that this is the career that I want, I’ll be able to graduate and get that career.”9Melissa Leavitt and Elaine Leigh, “Listening to Recent High School Grads: ‘Be Mindful of What We Have Gone Through,’” Strada Education Network, September 29, 2021. Developing partnerships with local employers and industry is a critical strategy institutions use to connect students with career opportunities. As practitioners discussed, these partnerships develop gradually and require an investment of staff time and resources to build and maintain over time — even more so for institutions or systems operating in an area with regional diversity, where different communities and industries have different needs. In addition to building bridges into the community, practitioners also discussed how they bring career planning into the institution by providing career-based training and incorporating career navigation into curricula.
Grow industry partnerships to connect students with employment and professional development opportunities. Partnerships between an institution and local organizations and employers can be a gateway for students to explore careers and develop their professional networks.
Nethubb’s online platform connects students to professional associations, through which they can explore scholarship, mentorship, and career development opportunities. Associations in Texas, where Nethubb is located, include the Texas Association of School Psychologists, American Institute of Graphic Arts DFW, Greater Dallas-Texas Restaurant Association, Texas Society of Association Executives, and many others. Associations will continue to be added from around the country to expand the outreach to help students and young adults discover and achieve their career passion.
Develop short-term and targeted career training programs. Career-focused programs serve as an effective entry point into postsecondary education for students eager to start their careers, and also enhance the employability of all students and graduates.
The Maine Community College System is developing free courses designed to train Maine’s remote workforce. The six- to nine-month courses will offer training in fields that are conducive to remote work, as well as the skills needed to be an effective remote worker. The program is funded through a grant from the Ascendium Foundation and leverages longstanding relationships with the college system’s employer advisory group, whose input helped shape the program. These longstanding relationships have been created and maintained through the MCCS’s 27-year Maine Quality Centers program.
Embed career navigation and experiential learning into curricula. Integrating career preparation and exploration into curricula encourages students to recognize the career relevance of what they are learning, and makes career preparation a critical part of the learning experience.
The University of Denver Daniels College of Business provides students with career guidance by integrating “Designing Your Life” courses within the curriculum. The courses encourage students to reflect on their interests and passions, and use that insight to build a five-year plan for their lives and careers.
Outer Coast College, a new nonprofit liberal arts postsecondary program in Alaska, integrates work and experiential learning into the student experience. All students work on campus in the day-to-day operations of the institution, and serve as volunteers and apprentices with local organizations. The program strives to provide an entry point into postsecondary education for Alaska students, and serves a majority Alaskan student cohort including Native students and students from rural communities.
In the 1990s, the Maine legislature established a fund that led community colleges and employers to work closely together to provide training and upskilling programs. Nearly three decades later, relationships launched through that fund remain instrumental in meeting a need that educators, employers, and policymakers never could have predicted: how to rapidly train a workforce to operate virtually in the midst of a global pandemic.
“A lot of employers were not prepared during the pandemic for setting up remote work or supervising it,” explained Charles Collins, deputy executive director of workforce training for the Maine Community College System. In response, MCCS started a program funded through a philanthropic partnership to offer new training opportunities supporting a strong remote workforce. Workers can take courses to learn skills for industries where they can work remotely, and participate in training on how to be effective remote workers. The program also sets up an employer advisory group focused on expanding opportunities for remote work.
One reason MCCS was able to mobilize quickly to obtain the grant and launch the program was its longstanding partnerships with employers throughout the state. A group of employers was already in place to help out with this initiative, Collins said. The strong career services program at MCCS was also key, he noted. The program will launch in January 2022.
Just as students continue to navigate disruptions and changes caused by the pandemic, the institutions and organizations serving them continue to develop and launch new approaches to meet the need for guidance, affordability, and a strong connection to career. In the lives of students, these needs and priorities are deeply intertwined. The approaches discussed by practitioners and captured in this report reflect their commitment to supporting students’ educational and career development beyond enrollment through completion and into career. As these insights from practitioners reveal, their efforts to engage students through multiple services and supports at once — such as Indiana’s FAFSA completion lab that offers guidance in addition to access to aid, or St. Petersburg College’s approach to infuse career guidance and resources into the outreach process — can be a powerful tool for reconnecting learners to postsecondary pathways.
Practitioners highlighted several key strategies guiding their efforts as they launch and refine these practices. Strong partnerships — whether within institutions, between secondary and postsecondary systems, or between institutions and the broader community — are critical to building the support that make these practices possible. A holistic view of the student experience can lead to the most meaningful interventions to reconnect students, especially as individuals who stay disconnected from the postsecondary system become more difficult to reach. Iterative response and adaptation will be crucial in this time when students’ preferences for course and service delivery are in flux.
The racial and economic inequities exposed by the pandemic continue to remind us that postsecondary education remains critical for creating a pathway to opportunity and socioeconomic mobility. One positive lasting effect of the pandemic on postsecondary education may be a renewed energy around developing programs and resources that are responsive to student needs, relevant to changing circumstances, and foster meaningful engagement with students and communities.
Strada Education Network would like to thank workshop participants for discussing their practices for effectively engaging learners and creating a space to connect and share ideas. In publishing this report, we hope to lift up these practices for a broader audience and support practitioners to learn from and build upon these ideas.
The declines in postsecondary education enrollment made headlines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but what does that mean for the students behind those statistics?
Recent high school graduates share why their education plans were disrupted, and what types of support could bring them back.
From its onset in early 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended life across the world, leading to uncertainty around health, work, finances, education, and a host of other issues.
Will Pandemic-Disrupted Learners Return to School?