How 3 colleges are helping vulnerable students during the coronavirus crisis

The coronavirus has shattered the rhythm of college life nationwide, highlighting the fact that for some students, their campus is the only reliable place to learn, and even live, during the academic year.

For colleges that serve a large number of disadvantaged students, the virus has presented unique challenges. They’ve needed to consider how to continue instruction when students may not have internet access at home and to help ensure students’ basic needs are being met. 

Education Dive checked in with three colleges that enroll a higher than average share of Pell Grant recipients to learn more.​

Using front-line staff to connect with students

At Fresno Pacific University, a small Christian college in California’s Central Valley, about half the students come from families that earn less than $40,000 a year, said Dale Scully, the university’s vice president for campus life.

While only about 100 students were living on campus as of last week — representing about a quarter of the college’s residential population —​ many more still struggle with meeting basic needs, Scully said. More than half of Fresno Pacific’s undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients, he said.

Although the university is small, enrolling about 3,000 undergraduates, administrators weren’t aware of every student who might be struggling, Scully said. They didn’t know which students didn’t own a computer — a critical tool as the college switched to online instruction — or lacked reliable access to food.

The college turned to front-line staff who were still on campus to “get the skinny,” Scully said. 

This assortment of coaches, academic advisers and student affairs professionals who interact with students daily helped the college connect with some of its neediest learners. Meanwhile, an emergency management team composed of upper-level administrators meets daily to assess potential student problems.

Once officials identified the students who needed assistance, they were able to loan them devices, which helped to address the college’s initial concerns around ensuring students could access classes online. They were also able to connect them with the campus food pantry, which remains open, Scully said.

Without the help of staff on campus, the administration wouldn’t have been able to assist students as effectively, Scully said. “Listen to the people who are working day in and day out with students.”

At Fresno Pacific University, in California, administrators relied on campus staff to help them connect with students who needed extra assistance because of the impact of the coronavirus.


Easing a hard shift online

As a two-year institution without on-campus housing, the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) didn’t need to worry about shepherding students off the grounds. But moving its student body to remote instruction was a massive undertaking. 

Community colleges tend to lack the resources and technology infrastructure of many four-year schools. They also typically serve students who have fewer resources and more responsibilities outside of the classroom. About 45% of CCRI’s 13,000 students are Pell recipients.

Before moving courses online, the college texted its student body and asked who lacked a laptop or an adequate internet connection, said Sara Enright, CCRI’s vice president for student affairs and chief outcomes officer. Nearly 1,000 wrote back indicating they didn’t have the tools to complete their work online. 

The college has since given away 100 iPads and laptops to those students. It also doled out 800 or so grants, most of which were between $100 and $400, to help students buy devices or fix their existing ones. 

Those grants are funded in part by CCRI’s foundation, but the college also needed to divert some money earmarked for summer scholarships. If students couldn’t finish their spring semester, the summer session was moot, Enright said. 

The state has also worked with various telecommunications companies to help provide free Wi-Fi to those who need it, and CCRI has helped connect students with those deals, Enright said. 

Most of the college’s services, including academic advising, moved online. Administrators have begun making sure staff assigned to these services are available at odd hours to help students who are unable to use them during regular business hours, Enright said.

Community College of Rhode Island campus

Officials at the Community College of Rhode Island said they reached out to students before moving classes online to ask if they had the tools needed to take classes remotely.

Courtesy of Community College of Rhode Island


Looking off campus

The University of Central Florida (UCF) has one of the biggest college enrollments in the country at nearly 70,000 students, according to school data. About 40% of undergraduates are Pell recipients, Maribeth Ehasz, vice president of student development and enrollment services, told Education Dive. 

As of last week, some 450 students remained on campus. But many more live in off-campus housing, which is not under university purview. The university must keep in mind that those students may also need help, Ehasz said. 

Connecting with them isn’t as easy as it is with those who have remained on campus, however. The college tried the usual text messages and phone calls to reach students, and it has escalated those efforts since the pandemic began, Ehasz said. 

Getting in touch with off-campus students is important. For some, otherwise-stable circumstances may have been thrown off balance by the coronavirus as they or family members lost income, Ehasz said. Students in a precarious financial position before the pandemic may now be worse off. 

University officials can point them to services still open to help nonresidential students, including student health and the food pantry. UCF also has a $25,000 emergency fund for students in need, Ehasz said, though the university has only drawn about $1,600 from the account so far.

“Contact them individually,” she said of the students. “You need to employ the university community to do that.”

University of Central Florida campus

While around 450 students were still living on campus as of last week, the university is also looking to help off-campus students need support.



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