As we come to the close of 2020, we have all experienced a year none of us were prepared for, and its effects have hit our already vulnerable students the hardest. We continue to see how learning loss, food and housing insecurity, isolation, and anxiety have affected our students. The focus of this blog remains on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on low-income students and their ability to successfully navigate college to graduate on time, with little debt, prepared to enter a career. There are many questions with little in the way of answers for what lies ahead for our students, but we do know that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting students of color and those with the fewest resources. We think about what changes this pandemic will have on how and where the students we serve will seek higher education opportunities in 2021 and beyond. Together, we learn about how this global crisis will play out and what we can do to be ready for our students’ recovery and eventual reentry into the post-pandemic world of college success.
As we look across the landscape of college success organizations, a key focus has been and will continue to be equity in education. The work that we do to support student success is crucial, and we continue to work together to create a just and equitable society. Our students are incredibly resilient and continue on their college journeys, despite having even more stacked against them during this pandemic. COVID-19 has also impacted college success staff and programming across the country, from events going virtual to community outreach and engagement near halted for many.
To learn about how others in the direct service space are moving ahead with commitment to and passion for equity in education, I engaged Elissa Salas, CEO of College Track for this month’s blog. With its national office based in Oakland, California, College Track has centers throughout California, Colorado, Louisiana, and the D.C. metro area.
Tell us about the work that College Track does and what issues in education you are trying to address. How has this shifted due to COVID-19?
College Track is a comprehensive college completion program that equips students confronting systemic barriers to earn a bachelor’s degree in pursuit of a life of opportunity, choice, and power. From 9th grade through college graduation, our ten-year program systematically removes the academic, financial, and social-emotional barriers that keep first-generation students from low-income communities from completing college and thriving in the workforce. Our vision is to democratize potential, creating social mobility for our students by advancing educational equity and expanding the pipelines for meaningful internships and employment.
As a national organization serving thousands of students and families, College Track has a broad perspective on the impact of COVID-19 in education. Since March we have adapted our program to provide:
- Virtual programming and online student workshops, including access to technology and small group and one-on-one social-emotional support
- Online test preparation, college counseling, financial advising, academic coaching, and college transition assistance for high school students
- Remote advising, scholarships, and emergency funding for college students
- Virtual Corporate Residency Program (CRP), providing the opportunity for students to shadow corporate employees and learn from experts in the field about job skills, internships, and career pathways
During the pandemic, what lessons have you learned about student support?
While there have been many lessons, what has been reinforced for us these past nine months is the importance of meeting our students where they are and providing what they need to continue their educational journeys. The way we work has changed, but the why behind our work has not. We remain deeply committed to helping our extraordinary students stay connected to their dreams of building a future filled with opportunity and choice, through the power of higher education.
What is the biggest impact that COVID-19 has had on the way College Track operates on a daily basis?
Like anyone in the education space, we have had to completely pivot our services to deliver everything online. To seamlessly serve our students during COVID, this has included getting creative about delivering and using technology, ramping up our social-emotional wellness work, and generally remaining flexible and committed to keeping every student on track. This fall has seen high numbers of students from low-income communities starting but then leaving college (see article here). We have had better success with retention among college freshmen in our program, which we attribute to our wrap-around services and a strong emphasis on student wellness and preparation. Expanding our coaching model to address individual needs has made all the difference.
What did you initially think was a challenge that turned out to be an opportunity to improve how you support students?
Initially, we did not know what attendance would look like in a virtual setting. We worried students would not get what they needed if they were unable to log on or disengaged with the online learning process. However, we also saw it as an opportunity to strengthen our structures to better capture attendance rates, engage in outreach strategies when students did not show up, connect with parents more regularly, and provide those in need with Wi-Fi hotspots. Our site teams also did a wonderful job of developing student websites and an online curriculum that allowed students to build community through activities while receiving continued academic support.
As sheltering in place has gone on longer than anticipated, what are some additional considerations you have made to support your staff?
We developed a coaching model to provide staff with best practices for instructing online, and we hold regular meetings to determine what is working and what needs fixing. We have a COVID working group that collaborates with our HR department to ensure that all staff have the tools, resources, and time off they need to find balance and feel supported during this time. And we have developed a flexible, multi-phase return-to-work plan that gives our staff voice and choice in how and when we safely return to work in person.
What keeps you up at night these days?
I am concerned about learning losses we may see this year, which will have a ripple effect on students’ academic and career trajectories. Early research is suggesting a decrease in student engagement and achievement for high school students, a pause in enrollment for college students, and fewer opportunities for strong first jobs in a recovering economy. While our staff have been heroic in our efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID this year, and as a result College Track students are by and large staying on track academically, I am concerned that the students and communities we serve will bear the inequitable brunt of school closures and the economic recession for years to come.