As the new year begins, it is not a time of hope for many community college students and potential students who are dealing with all-too-familiar struggles and challenges that keep them away from the classroom.
Before Covid, many members of this group were economically stressed and food insecure, lacking access to reliable bandwidth and dealing with unstable employment. Yet, they saw education as a way to improve their lives, said Kathi Swanson, president of CLARUS Corporation.
“They saw something better,” she said, “and that was always what we could talk to them about — that hope, that opportunity.
Last year, she saw a change.
CLARUS conducted a series of focus groups in fall 2021 with a duo of high school senior classes in Texas. One class consisted of dual-enrollment students — those who were finishing up high school and taking community colleges classes simultaneously — from an affluent high school; the other group included seniors who were not participating in dual-enrollment classes, who attended a high school with a high percentage of minority students and those receiving reduced lunch.
Swanson has asked the same questions of her focus groups for two decades to figure out high school students’ goals. This fall, she gathered drastically different answers. The views from this focus group were stark, due to Covid’s impact on participants’ families’ lives, Swanson said.
“So when we talk to high school groups, we’re seeing things like loss and death,” she said. “We weren’t seeing those optimistic words. Our job [as marketers] is to somehow re-instill that hope in them that things are going to be better, that we can help.”
The way to achieve that, Swanson said, isn’t through money, but through support services such as childcare, food and social services.
Adding part-time help
Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania saw that need for services firsthand, said Julie Greathouse, Westmoreland’s director of student success. Many have been affected by Covid in some way — students have gotten sick, or their family members have gotten sick, which means the household has to quarantine and skip going into work or school. In other cases, a single computer may serve an entire household, so it’s tied up when students need to attend virtual class or complete school work.
To help, the college used federal Covid money to hire a part-time social worker and a part-time counselor. The counselor provides therapy for students and spearheads the campus-wide mental health initiative. The social worker connects students to social service resources and has teamed up with the Westmoreland Diaper Bank to provide free diapers and wipes, plus free emergency cab wipes.
Their schedules are always full.
“We know that if our students don’t have their basic needs met, nothing else matters,” Greathouse said. “If they’re trying to pay their bills, trying to keep a roof over their head, trying to pay for childcare or trying to feed their kids, they can’t even think about school.”
‘What do you need from us?’
These efforts to get students connected to community resources can be key to recruiting new students — but they’re also critical for retention. Faculty members have told Greathouse that they’ve never seen so many students disappear from their classes.
And those who do show up aren’t doing the work.
“The bottom has dropped, and students have just disappeared,” Greathouse said.
Westmoreland’s comprehensive mental health plan includes working with faculty, staff and directly with students. The college also offers gift cards for food, emergency computers, internet access, rent assistance, help with purchasing books and more through partner agencies and internal programs.
It’s vital for community colleges, especially community college marketers, to understand the challenges these students have faced and continue to face, Swanson said.
“We have to talk to the students who have been hardest hit,” she said, “and really ask them, ‘What do you need from us? What do you need to hear from us to help you see that this is the way to go?’”