Janet Napolitano: COVID and college – we can't let a pandemic upend the future for our most vulnerable kids

Technology on college campuses fight against COVID19

Nationwide college campuses are working to keep their classrooms open during the coronavirus pandemic. Many colleges are relying on technology to help them get the job done.

There is a common misconception in higher education that when college acceptance letters arrive, the biggest hurdle to a bright future has been successfully overcome. However, the greater challenge, which will only be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is keeping college students enrolled after their freshman year.

In fact, National Student Clearinghouse reported that of the 2.6 million first-time undergraduate students who enrolled in fall 2018, almost 25 percent did not persist into their second year. And among students of color, almost 30 percent of Hispanic students and 33 percent of Black students did not stay in school after their freshman year according to that same report.

Given the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on vulnerable communities, we risk these numbers growing at a rate that will have severe consequences for generations to come as well as a negative effect on our nation’s economy during the post-pandemic recovery.

We know that education beyond high school pays off. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that people who earn a bachelor’s degree make around $22,000 more a year on average than those with some college credit, and people with advanced degrees earn almost $35,000 more. Average unemployment rates also decline as educational attainment rises.

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That’s why we need to make investments in personalized, early interventions that increase the likelihood of retaining our first-time college students, especially for Black, Latinx, first-generation and low-income students.

Student-faculty mentoring programs help students adjust to the transition to college through a faculty mentor who provides social and academic support to students.

Leveraging predictive analytics helps institutions identify and provide interventions like counseling and other supports to students who may be struggling before it is too late. And faculty can use online, rapport-building strategies in their remote course to help engage with students and help them succeed in this online environment.

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It is not too late to begin these efforts as the fall semester wraps up and planning for spring semester begins.

I understand the importance of students’ first experiences as relates to retention as I have seen firsthand the challenges they face – academically, financially, and personally.

In my recent role as president of the University of California, I spent significant time focused on addressing the cost of higher education while also working to provide greater access to our system in order to help students succeed.

As governor of Arizona, I invested in higher education to ensure that students were learning from high-quality faculty and engaged in relevant programming that made them career ready.

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Even amid a pandemic, we cannot overlook investing in and supporting our first-time college students as they attempt to persist through this non-traditional academic year.

Financial stress has been significantly affected by the pandemic, negatively impacting student’s mental health at a time where campus resources are inaccessible. In this largely hybrid and remote learning environment, we must be innovative as we reimagine the wraparound services typically offered to support students’ financial and mental health needs.

Our leaders and institutions must continue to invest in academic and non-academic supports for first-time college students, even in this time of great fiscal uncertainty. Doing so will help students return for their second year and pay dividends in the long-term as they complete their degree.

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Even when teaching remotely, faculty and administrators must be vigilant in providing personalized, early interventions and continuing to build stronger rapport so students who are at the greatest risk of stopping out and never returning, persist through their first year and beyond.

We cannot let a pandemic get in the way of helping our most vulnerable students succeed – their future and ours depends on it.

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