Meeting Students Where They Are

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A Modern Challenge Facing Higher Education

The higher education landscape is changing: colleges are struggling to attract and retain students, student demographics are shifting, and colleges that don’t adapt are now closing their doors. What’s the answer to this problem? Meeting students where they are.

Anyone paying attention to trends in higher education knows this: student demographics are changing. We don’t need to spend time rehashing the statistics, but if you need a refresher, many outlets such as the Lumina Foundation and US News have written extensively on the topic. The gist: we are seeing an influx of more non-traditional students who are working, having families, and coming from more diverse backgrounds than ever before.

These students are increasingly gravitating toward online and degree completion programs. The appeal? They provide the flexibility in time and location for education to become accessible to a new group of students. Those with families, those who work from home, or those working full-time now have the opportunity to obtain a college degree.

Another challenge facing higher education is how to engage students and ensure they feel like a member of the campus community, even if they are online students. A recent article on NPR addressed a simple solution for a big retention problem at one university… Ask the students why they dropped out. Their answer revealed a big problem: they didn’t feel supported and didn’t feel connected to the campus community. They needed more student service support, more access to their faculty and support teams, and someone to invest in making them feel like an integral member of the campus.

The tradition of the intimate, on-campus learning experience is fading. Felipe Mendez, a graduate student in public affairs at the University of Washington, recently said: “My academic success could not have been possible without a strong support structure consisting of mentoring, instructional assistance, scholarship support, and cultural organizations. I believe that all students should have these support elements to help them succeed at this very challenging institution.”

Students expect immediate, accessible help during their college experience. This is difficult to do with static online content (the classic discussion boards, written assignments, and – if a student is lucky – maybe a one-way video lecture from their professor.) It is no longer acceptable to make a meeting weeks out, during which time the student may become disenchanted, find a (wrong) solution to their problem, and in extreme cases leave the college entirely.

We have a moral imperative to find a solution. As students from diverse backgrounds take out disproportionately large student loans, we need to commit to making an educational environment that not only allows but empowers them to graduate. Not doing so has a real economic impact on the individual, their community, and our nation as a whole.

In order to be successful in engaging students and keeping them on their degree track, we need to meet students where they are. This isn’t in an administrative building across campus or a virtual discussion board. This is mobile – on cell phones, social media, and on the web. This is immediate – within reason, we should keep information and people accessible and address student needs.

A first step to addressing this issue is for colleges to create a Student Success Task Force with representatives from all major stakeholder groups. This group should be charged with creating a standard academic communication system to address student retention, graduation rates, and financial indebtedness. Further, they should be focused on reducing the barriers for students to have engaging, face-to-face communication with their entire support team to provide assistance with admission, scholarships, and academic advising and tutoring services – wherever the student is.

By meeting students where they are, engaging students in the campus community, and creating a team to specifically focus on creating accessible retention and financial aid practices, colleges today have the opportunity to ensure their long-term success.

Lexie Banks

Lexie Banks

Director of Communications at Cranium Cafe
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.
Lexie Banks
About the author: Lexie Banks
I believe in the power of individual relationships to change the direction of a student's education. My role at Cranium Cafe? To get you connected with the Cafe through engaging content and social media outreach. Check out our blog for my latest musings on higher education, academic advising, and the role of education for the modern student.