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We Must Not Leave Nontraditional Students Behind as COVID-19 Forces Colleges Online

In just a matter of weeks, millions of students will be attending college online, and, yet, few traditional schools are adequately prepared.

America’s higher education industry is wading into a minefield—it is difficult to effectively support students when the very instructors and administrators they rely on are also in unfamiliar territory. But the risk of failure will be even greater for a variety of marginalized student groups like minorities, first-generation students, transfer students and others. As classes resume, schools must devote special attention to these groups.

Quality, effective online education requires much more than a video lecture. This is true enough for the college student population as a whole, but the challenges are even more acute for many of the underserved student groups that have often faced struggles in attaining similar outcomes as their peers at traditional higher education institutions. These students will be at greater risk of seeing their education stall, or even giving up on it altogether, if they do not get the support they deserve in the online setting.

Raghu KrishnaiahRaghu Krishnaiah

Take students with disabilities, for example. Higher education administrators will have to ensure their online offerings comply with all relevant ADA requirements, whether for students with vision or hearing impairments or other disabilities. Then there are first-generation college students, who lack family or cultural support systems that can provide guidance or advice about higher education. They share many of these challenges with Native American and tribal students, a group that has historically seen lower college attainment than the rest of the country. In fact, between 2000 and 2017, the proportion of Native Americans aged 25 to 29 who had attained at least an associate or bachelor’s degree actually fell from 30% to 27%.

That is just a small sample; the full list of nontraditional student groups that may face disproportionate adverse impact from a poorly-planned online transition is much longer. The good news is that there are insights from longtime practitioners of online education that can help. When handled with care, the online environment can actually help to foster a more student-centric approach in many ways. By forcing us to think about how to meet unique student needs across different demographics, it’s possible to end up with resources and strategies that benefit all students in the long run.

For students with disabilities, much can be done beyond just meeting the bare minimum of ADA compliance requirements. It’s imperative that schools help make these students active participants in identifying when and where accommodations are needed — resources like Blackboard Ally are built from the ground up with this in mind.

First-generation students are, fortunately, often even more engaged with learning than their peers. But administrators and faculty must not assume that these students are familiar with the “hidden curriculum” or norms of higher education that many of us take for granted. This includes issues like how the financial aid process works, that it’s okay for students to ask questions or seek out additional support when they’re not sure they understand a topic, and the importance of informal networking and making connections with instructors and other students.

This cardinal rule about support for first-generation students is even more crucial when it comes to online learning. The risks of miscommunication or a lack of understanding are magnified when face-to-face interaction leaves the equation. Faculty must be prepared to provide additional instruction when necessary or refer students to academic counselors and support staff for extra help in acclimating to the college environment.

For Native American and tribal students in particular, some of the strongest success stories have come from university efforts to practice cultural competence, or improving understanding across unique cultures to shape approaches to support. This can mean anything from helping connect Native American students to educational funding opportunities from their respective tribes to developing individualized strategies for success that have fostered rising retention rates.

All of these approaches empower students to drive their own success. Providing students with the academic tools and resources to succeed is just the beginning. From there, schools need to focus on helping students cultivate long-term habits for learning, grow their skills and persevere. Instilling this foundation in students will help see them not just through this online learning transition, but beyond graduation and throughout their lives and careers.

We cannot allow outcomes for traditionally underserved and overlooked groups of students decline disproportionately compared to their peers. This is unacceptable, particularly in the midst of a recession where millions will be searching for the skills and knowledge they need to re-enter or advance in the workforce. By empowering students with the unique, tailored resources they need to succeed, schools can help mitigate this crisis across the nation.

Raghu Krishnaiah is the the chief operating officer for University of Phoenix. 

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