3 Tips to Bridge Gaps in Student Access and Increase Retention

bridge2Currently, college students are busier than ever. More often than not, many of them are working full-time, taking a sizeable course load, and are involved with other things on-campus or off. To conceptualize this, according to the American Association of University Professors, even as far back at 2007, nearly half of traditional undergraduates studying full-time are working while enrolled. The National Center on Education Statistics has the figure at more or less the same as recent as 2013. Even “non-traditional” students or the more aptly named adult learners are going to have a lot of demands on their time with families and jobs, so we need to work to make access to important student support services as easy as possible. This is especially important since many students are coming in with several gap years from their last time as a student or are coming from less privileged backgrounds and are going to need ample support to be successful.

Having proper support is going to have a hugely positive impact on whether or not a particular student persists and eventually graduates from your institution. Which is of course our main goal for our students no matter how we are associated with them. Whether it is academic advising and success, counseling, career services, or orientation, we need to do everything in our power to help students thrive on campus, not just survive. They’re investing so much time, effort, and money into this experience, and it is up to us to make that experience valuable.

Here are some helpful tips to increase access to your support services so that you can increase retention on your campus:

Get information and resources online

A common oversight I have seen for institutions is making sure that all the policies, procedures, forms, and contact info for support services are easily available on their websites. Perhaps it is a disconnect between administrators and student needs, or maybe a lack of the necessary skills to do so, but regardless, I can’t tell you how many times I have been frustrated with trying to find some answers for students myself (or finding information elsewhere for things off-campus like business hours, public transportation schedules, etc.). If we can’t personally be available all the time for our students, we should make sure any frequently asked questions can be easily answered from our website since that is always available for them. Also, it is wise to make sure your website is mobile friendly since, according to Pearson, in 2014 84% of students reported owning a smartphone and using it on a regular basis.

Here’s a good example of the positive impact making resources available online has on students. Your students should be able to get contact info to directly contact someone, download digital forms to do whatever they need to do, and/or understand the timeline of registration, all from the website. This results in them either being supported without having to make time to physically come into an office, or can be better prepared for a meeting with their advisor if they need to make that happen.

A caveat to this is that often, students don’t have the skills or confidence to find things out on their own; they’ve either never had to search for things on their own, are just unfamiliar with the college environment, or perhaps they’ve had a parent, family member, school counselor, etc. to help guide them through the process. A big help in getting our students to be more self-reliant, is providing them with the information they’re looking for in a user friendly way and encouraging them to look for it on their own first when they ask us questions.

Disrupt your typical routine

We appreciate routines in our live. We like to know what to expect so that there aren’t any stressful surprises and the fear of the unknown is limited when we have a standard plan for each day. We tend to consistently maintain typical business hours for our support offices, since that is the easiest thing to do. However, most college students are going to have a lot of other things going on during the day that prevent them from being able to come in. We need to disrupt our routines to be able to better serve our students. This could take the shape of extending hours into the evening, doing satellite office hours in high traffic places like residence halls or campus centers, or doing virtual office hours through a chat software. These tactics work to bridge the gaps between when and where we’re making ourselves available and how our students are going to be able to access us. Also, a great tip here is to delegate to undergraduate or graduate student workers or utilize flex time for your full-time staff members. Putting the burden of working a full day and then also engaging with students after hours is a bit much so be considerate of how you’re assigning these extra hours in terms of someone’s full load.

The closer we can align ourselves with where our students are with everything else they have going on, the better for them and for us, since we’ll be both working toward our own individual goals; our students will succeed academically and graduate, and we’ll showcase the value of our office’s support services by showcasing how many more students we’ve interacted with and helped in substantial ways.

Utilize the best tools and apps

In order to more easily get our resources online and disrupt our routines, we’ll need some tools and apps to help us out along the way. There are a variety of options out there for each specific outcome depending on your volume and budget, and I’ll highlight some here to give you a more detailed perspective.

To start off, a great way to share files is through a cloud storage service. Having access to your files wherever you (or any of your colleagues) are can be helpful for so many reasons, such as being able to work from home or remotely for any number of reasons. Google Drive, Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, or Microsoft’s OneDrive (as well as a plethora of other options) can all be useful and all have free tiers that can work for most individuals. Large teams will probably need to pay but the prices are reasonable. Depending on the tech ecosystem you buy into (Apple vs Microsoft) may control what storage system you use, but I personally love Dropbox and Google Drive as sort of universal options. Whether you’re just sharing important files internally, or sharing folders publically with students that are filled with a bunch of useful resources, this is the way most do (or should) store and access their files, so it’s good to get comfortable with a cloud storage platform. It will make your life so much easier!

To conduct chats and calls, tools like Cranium Café allow for you to reach individual students or a whole group of students to conduct appointments or workshops virtually. This can help with conversations that happen after hours, over breaks, or for long distance orientation advising before students even come to campus for the first time. Having a live, face-to-face discussion can be far more positive than just sending emails back and forth.

Booking meetings with students can be a pain sometimes. The complexity of both of our schedules can make trying to find time turn into a long chain of emails or missed calls. The Wall Street Journal has recently explained the time wasted by email that leaves professionals with only a small fraction of their working day to do actual work. Tools like Cranium Café make the process for students booking time on your schedule as easy as a few clicks. No longer will you waste valuable time trying to coordinate scheduling. You can focus on actually serving the students who need you!

College students are busy, so if we can broaden the access to everything that we offer, our students can be better positioned to succeed. Often, students struggle academically through no lack of trying on their part. They aren’t being lazy or slacking off. They want to do well and do what their supposed to, but we unwittingly make this unnecessarily difficult for them to do. The purpose of offering these services is so that our students take advantage of them. Students are never an interruption to our work, they’re the reason for it. There is a lot more to explore than what I’ve covered here, but hopefully this will start you down the right path. There are more tools for cloud storage, scheduling, and chat than what I’ve covered, but if this blog post does nothing else than to just get you looking at your office differently and how it makes itself available to students, than I would call this a success. Having a keen eye towards continuously improving everything you do will always keep you in a positive place. Also, be mindful of what your unique campus environment and student body needs to figure out your priorities. Every institution is going to have its own unique assets and quirks so use them to your advantage as best you can while also being flexible and adaptable.

Thoughtfully integrating any or all of these tips will help you connect your students to your support services so that no matter what their personal circumstances are, your students are better poised for success.

I appreciate any and all feedback and comments on what is discussed here. Cheers!

Dustin Ramsdell

Dustin Ramsdell

Higher Ed Geek, Blogger, & Podcaster at Husson University
Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He also is an alumni of University of Delaware where he majored in history and minored in leadership, and currently works at Husson University in Maine as a Resident Director, fulfilling his desire to help college students succeed everyday. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Check out his personal blog at higheredgeek.com.
Dustin Ramsdell

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About the author: Dustin Ramsdell
Dustin is a graduate of the Rutgers University College Student Affairs Ed.M Program. He also is an alumni of University of Delaware where he majored in history and minored in leadership, and currently works at Husson University in Maine as a Resident Director, fulfilling his desire to help college students succeed everyday. He is a proud nerd and self-affirmed "Higher Ed Geek" who is excited to connect with folks who share his love of deep conversations! Check out his personal blog at higheredgeek.com.