DeBaun: Virtual Advising Can Combat COVID Melt and Ensure HS Students Make it to College. 3 Steps Schools Can Take

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Every year, as much as one-third of college-bound high school graduates never show up to their first day of class. It’s all too easy for students to miss important deadlines, forget about necessary paperwork or get lost in the byzantine financial aid process. Known as summer melt, this phenomenon has long plagued high schools and colleges.

In response, savvy schools and nonprofit partners in the college access field have turned to virtual advising to keep students on track when they cannot meet in person over the summer. In Connecticut, for example, the CT RISE network sends text messages to thousands of students in nine high schools. The program has been so successful that the Connecticut State Department of Education is now offering access to the texting software to 26 additional schools.

These kinds of practices were crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, as millions of students facing overwhelming financial and academic challenges were unable to connect face-to-face with counselors and advisers. The number of students completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid — FAFSA — has plunged, and schools doubled down on virtual advising strategies to help combat this COVID melt. Now, those same strategies can serve as a foundation for a more flexible, impactful approach to counseling moving forward.

Here are three steps schools can take to create an effective virtual advising program that can serve students far beyond the pandemic.

First, schools must decide how they will communicate with students virtually. The best programs will make use of a variety of platforms, including texting, email, social media, videoconferencing and newsletters. It’s easy to drown in a sea of options, but the choice among the many available platforms should be driven by both the kinds of interventions a school hopes to offer (e.g., one- or two-way texting, social media campaigns and outreach, virtual meetings with students and families) and the kinds of students the school serves. If students lack regular access to email outside school, for example, an email campaign may be of little use.

Second: Data is key. Without it, schools are in the dark, and virtual counseling efforts will fail. Schools cannot text students reminders without first creating a database of students’ and parents’ phone numbers. A robust system of virtual advising is built on data.

Grade-point averages, coursework and standardized test scores are all vital pieces of information that can help schools develop stronger, more effective advising solutions. Schools must also collect data on the impact of their advising programs. They should set clear goals and milestones and then measure whether those are being reached. Clear data-sharing agreements between districts and schools and the community-based organizations and vendors with whom they partner will be critical in avoiding any confusion over what data is available and how it can be used.

Finally, schools must avoid an ad hoc approach and instead determine what interventions make sense for their communities and individual students. When FAFSA deadlines approach, schools might want to roll out a community-wide campaign, sending every student an email or a text message with reminders of important dates and forms and links to helpful resources. They could organize Zoom calls with small groups of students to discuss their college plans and what steps they are taking. Triaging is important: Some students may need one-on-one advising sessions to address their questions, while others might require a lighter touch.

Schools should let data inform what interventions are needed for which kinds of students, and when. Directly asking students about the level of support they’re interested in will help guarantee they get what they need. Having a clear plan in place will allow schools to determine how to best make use of their limited time and resources so students receive the right kinds of care and support.

To help, the College Advising Corps has created a guide to help districts, schools and community-based organizations like college access programs choose the right types of communication for them and parse the large variety of available platforms, from texting tools like Remind and SignalVine to virtual meeting services like Zoom and Google Hangouts. The 500 members of the National College Attainment Network can help districts and schools support their students as they navigate college-access mile markers like FAFSA completion and comparisons of financial aid offers. The College Advising Corps offers districts a rich library of resources.

Additional aid is coming in the form of more than $120 billion in the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to help state education agencies, districts and schools support existing initiatives and create new ones. Districts have considerable flexibility in how to spend these funds, including on college and career readiness.

While COVID-19 has challenged even the best-laid education plans, it has also spurred developments in support that may serve students well for years to come. By creating a thoughtful and robust virtual advising plan, schools can help ensure that their students have the support and resources they need to keep moving forward on their college journey.

Bill DeBaun is director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network.

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