How one HBCU successfully handled the COVID transition

Fayetteville State not only overcame the challenges but had its best fall enrollment in more than 150 years
By: | October 5, 2020
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Students at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina were on Spring Break when concerns about a novel coronavirus shook the nation. Campus leaders, understanding the severity of the news and the impact it could have on its community, went to work.

According to Dr. Teresa Thompson-Pinckney, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Access and Student Success, one of the first questions asked was: “How can we make sure we don’t lose our students?”

Fayetteville State officials decided to extend that break by a week, giving the team extra time to strategize. They did an assessment with students to gauge their accessibility to technology and looked at housing and finances, both from a university and student perspective. With a strong foundation on the digital side, they moved 100% of their classes online.

There were no guarantees any of the ideas or plans would work. In fact, at one point during the summer, Thompson-Pinckney recalled thinking, “It’s not stopping, it’s bleeding and we’re trying to triage this and figure out when it is going to stop … thinking it going to stop in 3-4 weeks or in the next few months and it just continues.”

Looking back on it nearly six months later during a virtual summit run by Arizona State University and Global Silicon Valley, she said part of the reason why her teams were so successful in responding to the crisis was  “because we have a history of not having enough resources all the time to do the great things we do.”

The past months have not been perfect at Fayetteville State, but it is running efficiently under a hybrid model. Its students have been attending classes. COVID-19 numbers that were once somewhat high are now just a few. The best news of all: it didn’t lose its students. In fact, it gained … an increase of 2.7% year over year in the fall, resulting in the largest enrollment in the 153-year history of the university.

“I feel like we had some infrastructures in place that allowed us to continue to function and adapt as seamlessly as we could, so that we could keep the doors open for our students,” Thompson-Pinckney said. “I feel like we’re all operating from a totally different lens. The way in which we function and the way in which we do our work has totally changed. I can’t think of anything that stayed the same. But we still have staff intact, we still have faculty intact, we still care for our students. As long as we are consistently trying to find out what the needs of our students are, that is what is going to help us retain our students and serve them.”

The challenges and changes

Fayetteville State University in North Carolina has 6,500 students, the majority of which are undergraduates. It is one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), however its makeup is different from many others. More than 45% of its attendees are transfer students, and 40% are adult learners. Another 26% are from the military, courtesy of the campus’ close proximity to a major installation.

There were many considerations unique to the institution that had to be addressed when the pandemic struck to support students. Three areas that Fayetteville State’s leaders looked at intially were:

  1. Academic policies: “We were trying to decrease the amount of pressure that our students were experiencing as much as possible,” Thompson-Pinckney said. So, the university allowed some students to withdraw without it affecting their allowable number of withdrawals. It revised its academic standing policy for the rest of the semester. And it allowed students to opt to take grades that were “more COVID-related, so their GPA could not be impacted.”
  2. Processes: Much of Fayetteville State’s systems still involved paperwork – especially contracts – so the goal was to not let all of that paperwork impede student support and progress. Thompson-Pinckney looked back and laughed: “We’ve come a long way since then with electronic signatures. We’ve got it down to the spot now.”
  3. Finances: Fayetteville received a good chunk of CARES Act money to offset student hardships, but there were a host of questions early on that shook university leaders, not only at Fayetteville but across the country: “How is all of this going to affect our retention and our graduation rates? We have incoming freshmen, what is that going to look like? Are students going to come? Are parents going to let them come?” Not to mention the costs of PPE for students and other sanitizing measures.

The most important consideration, though, she said, was “the safety of our students and our faculty and staff.”

To meet those concerns, Fayetteville held a number of town hall meetings while meeting frequently with alumni to update them on challenges facing the university and students. It formed various teams across campus, including an enrollment management task force, an academic affairs task force and other task forces that simply ensured they weren’t missing anything.

“We were trying to decrease the gaps and decrease the number of silos,” Thompson-Pinckney said. “The plan revolved around being transparent with communication. There was a rearranging of schedules to make sure that our students, staff and faculty were safe once we returned to campus. And then just the whole aspect of student engagement and planning to make sure we could give our students the best experience we could, with the limitations that had been provided to us.”

Fayetteville had planned to have staff return in June but had to push that back to early July. It decided to bring students back two weeks earlier than scheduled, which forced university leaders to scramble to accommodate changes.

“We had to adjust fire because there were so many unanticipated consequences of what was happening with the pandemic,” she said. The plan was to go hybrid because of its past success juggling remote and in-person learning.

One of the more challenging aspects was putting together a schedule that worked and factored in COVID-19 guidelines, such as factoring in 30-minute breaks for cleaning between classes. The fall semester, they agreed, would end just before Thanksgiving. The next semester would start in late January. In the meantime, they decided to cancel all Friday classes (so a deep clean could happen on weekends), leaving Mondays and Wednesdays for instruction at half capacity to meet social distancing measures.

“We’re adjusting with to the best of our ability,” she said. “I feel like we have really been intentional around how we social distance, but we also continue to provide a space for our students to be able to learn in a face-to-face environment.”

In addition, the university alllowed faculty who had obligations – such as childcare – to work flexible schedules and while supporting them heavily in their technology needs.

Adjusting on the fly

Despite the many challenges, Fayetteville State has managed to provide as “normal” an atmosphere as can be expected during the pandemic.

According to Thompson-Pinckney, its student affairs leaders have helped offer a nearly seamless orientation experience, including a hybrid Welcome Week “where students could opt to come on campus and experience, but making sure that there were no more than 10 people in the classroom.” In addition, they’ve helped engage students through social media to get university messages to them.

She also lauded the school’s Center of Personal Development, which has given students a forum to have conversations around their health and social issues.

“We’ve definitely been in tune with understanding that these are challenging times,” she said. “And there’s been a lot of challenges for our students from a social and emotional perspective.”

Thompson-Pinckney said that line of communication between institutions and students is essential, not just for younger ones on campus but for those who are not traditional attendees.

“It’s not really only Gen Z [outreach] for us as an institution, it’s also about our adult learners,” she said, highlighting the need to be tactical in any outreach effort. “There’s always been this balance of over-communicating. Over-communicating is important because when people say they don’t know, then that’s where the problem is. Finding multiple ways to communicate in various ways is helpful.”

Beyond that communication, Fayetteville State has increased the use of dashboards to look more closely at metrics of its students – pinpointing everything from COVID-19 data to freshman class registration numbers to financial considerations – to be able to make sounder and faster decisions.

“We’re looking at the utilization of various platforms that we have for students [including surveys] to help us understand what is going on,” Thompson-Pinckney said. “Are students using support services? Qualitative feedback is important. After any events, any activities and services, getting students to give feedback so we can understand what we might need to do better. Looking at account balances … because that may show you that students are struggling and not able to pay off their account.”

As for looking ahead to 2021, Fayetteville isn’t planning many changes, although with COVID-19, those plans are understandably in limbo.

“We’re continuing with our plan that we currently have in place,” she said. “We’re not going to adjust the model that we’re using. We’re still going to continue with the hybrid model. The course load is still the same as it was prior to COVID.”

However, one area it will continue to tweak is that virtual learning model, which has enjoyed some success before and during the pandemic.

“100% of our faculty now have this experience of virtual learning and teaching and the pedagogy around that,” Thompson-Pinckney said. “I foresee some aspects of hybrid learning for students, maybe not at this percentage, but it definitely has opened the doors for us to be able to continue this as a best practice. Because we have a large population of adult learners and transfer students, we’ve grappled with how to better support them. COVID has required us to think differently and do differently. This has enabled us to look a little bit more broader at how our population has changed over the years, and how we continue to serve those who are coming to our institutions.”


Chris Burt is a reporter and editor with University Business. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com