Leveraging Technology Solutions

by Melissa Fries & Oscar Sweeten-Lopez

As I discussed in my last blog – the first of this ongoing series “CAP College Success Institute Series: Impact of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Crisis” – the COVID-19 crisis has led to nationwide college campus shutdowns that have impacted students in many ways. Low-income students are disproportionately affected through unprecedented closure decisions and the shift to virtual learning. Whether it’s making sure they have a safe place to study and will be able to keep up with coursework remotely, maintaining connections with their on-campus peer networks and circles of support and/or making plans for short-term housing and job placement as they approach college graduation or plans for summer, these students are facing unanticipated challenges – all on top of the systemic barriers already threatening their college persistence.

During this time of uncertainty, our ability as college success professionals to stay in touch with each student we serve is critical and can be very difficult. Leveraging technology can help programs scale their efforts, from tracking each student’s status to segmenting targeted communications, according to Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, president of GradSnapp and former director of Dell Scholars.

Originally developed as the technology behind Dell Scholars, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation’s college completion program, GradSnapp is a student management platform designed to equip advisors with the information they need to support students’ college persistence. Nationally, about 20% of low-income students will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of entering college, whereas 80% of Dell Scholars will do so. By leveraging this technology, The Dell Scholars program supports students from low-income backgrounds to graduation at a rate four times that of their peers.

From effectively managing hundreds of individual students’ cases with ease, to helping remind students about key deadlines and action items essential for their academic or financial wellbeing, GradSnapp has already made college success advisors’ jobs a lot easier. In the era of social distancing, it’s become essential.

Earlier this month, I reached out to Oscar to learn more.

Melissa Fries: Can you discuss how GradSnapp enables coaches to better help students succeed in college?

Oscar Sweeten-Lopez: GradSnapp makes it possible to track every student you support, along with every point of contact your team has with them – all the information you need to effectively prioritize and support their success. If you are an advisor at CAP or a similar organization, you will be able to see all critical work you’re currently doing with students, alongside tools to help you identify when students are at risk of falling behind or dropping out. Coaches can then determine how to intervene, whether addressing academic or financial struggles or even supporting students through personal circumstances. When there’s a strong support model in place, technology makes it possible for advisors to do what they do best, helping them more efficiently and effectively make a difference for students.

Melissa: When advisors look at GradSnapp, what are the risk indicators they’re looking at? How do they know that a student may need immediate help or intervention?

Oscar: We monitor three types of risk factors: financial, academic and personal. GradSnapp provides an easy snapshot of student information such as GPA, or the amount of money students are going to owe for tuition next semester. We also know that personal circumstances can have a huge impact on a student’s college success, whether they are helping care for a sick family member, or perhaps struggling with stress or anxiety. With all this information in one place, advisors can identify when students need to be counseled on what to do next. GradSnapp enables advisors across scholarship programs, charter school alumni programs and nonprofits to support and communicate with many students.

Melissa: How has GradSnapp been leveraged by coaching and advisory programs with low-income college students during the COVID-19 crisis?

Oscar: In the short term, most students are concerned with their basic needs – food, shelter, keeping their job or finding a new one. When it comes to organizations that are already helping students navigate these issues, GradSnapp has helped them assess the level of need, keep in touch with students through email and texting and continue to provide support at scale.

Persist Nashville reported 9,000 interactions with students over the first two weeks of the crisis, including group and one-on-one text messages. Another example comes from Uplift Education, a network of charter schools in Dallas-Fort Worth. As campuses began closing doors, their team immediately began outreach to their alumni across the country to find out how they were doing and how the program could support them. Whether or not they needed help, students were so appreciative to receive the call – to know someone was there for them.

In the longer term, the current situation has underscored the need for virtual advising models. GradSnapp can help organizations that typically provide counsel in-person to adapt to a more hybrid or full-time virtual model. Dell Scholars has had a virtual support model since day one, so we have a lot to share with others about how to maintain that level of close personal contact and support remotely.

Melissa: Do you think a shift toward virtual coaching and mentoring – brought about by the COVID-19 crisis – will ultimately help organizations better reach low-income and under-served students and help them with their academic and career paths?

Oscar: For many organizations, the shift to virtual coaching is showing them that there’s more than one way to execute their support. That can translate to more consistent interactions with their students, combining touchpoints that are both in-person and virtual. It’s important to recognize that different students prefer to connect in different ways. What’s more, there are many ways to deepen relationships and increase engagement virtually, whether that’s through remote advising, video chats or social media. If your program is top of mind when a student needs support, you will have the greatest opportunity to help them stay on track, all the way through graduation.