Support for first-year students may be key this fall. Here are 4 ways to ensure you’re ready

Student affairs offices may be way ahead of the curve on how to deal with today's students, but their efforts will make little difference if students aren't aware of them.

With the fall semester imminent, higher education leaders are expecting their first-year students to enter the way they traditionally have: scratching away two layers of sunburn while they say their goodbyes to their parents or guardians as they embark on a new phase of life.

But don’t be surprised if their reception this year is more timid. Higher education’s youngest student cohort was anywhere from 14 to 16 years old when the pandemic paused regular life. Now, only three years removed from its disruption, some first-year students may still be struggling to cover ground academically and psychologically.

Average assessment scores between 2020 and 2022 have dropped by 5%. Similarly, 87% of public schools reported that the pandemic negatively impacted student socioemotional development during the 2021–22 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The next student cohort experienced a unique set of challenges from a decade past. Institutions can ensure their success and development with intentional support in the areas they may be vulnerable in and by communicating these services fully.

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Leverage data to identify at-risk students

It can be challenging to keep tabs on an entire student cohort, but it’s important to pay attention to those who are most susceptible to falling between the cracks.

The Lumina Foundation’s 2023 State of Higher Education found that 52% and 42%, respectively, of all Hispanic and Black students considered stopping out in 2022. Other at-risk students include those struggling with finances, first-generation students and those of other minority racial descent races and ethnicities.

Several colleges are using data to combat historical performance equity gaps. North Carolina’s Community College System’s Minority Male Success Initiative (MMSI) equips success coaches dedicated to first-year minority male students with real-time access to their grades, attendance, registration and other metrics. This allows them to walk into meetings with their attendees armed with an informed agenda. Additionally, the University of North Texas and Reynolds Community College (Va.) use a statistical software suite that crunches the data on student grades by subject, teacher and student demographics.

With the help of Watermark’s data-powered insights, MMSI’s three-year study found a 22.4% retention increase in new, minority-male, full-time students pursuing an associates degree.

Buff up mental health resources to promote academic success

As mental health continues to dominate as the top source of student stress on campus, institutions risk losing their students’ interest, engagement and retainment of class materials. Institutions that provide adequate mental health services, however, can help students get back on track and succeed; 64% of students said they are more likely to graduate with access to counselors.

Colleges and universities should use evidence-backed practices to maximize their effectiveness in combatting mental health concerns, such as mindfulness training and screenings.

Get students face-to-face

In-person event attendance has risen by 38%, according to EAB, illustrating students are ready to engage face to face. University of St. Thomas President Rob Vischer describes in-person engagement as a source of energy within itself, especially when educating “the loneliest age cohort in America.”

“I think it at the heart of it is, we have to take relationships seriously,” said President Vischer in an interview with University Business. “We have to help our students develop, not just into great productive employees, but into thoughtful, conscientious, other-centered persons.”

Market and communicate at nauseam

Student affairs offices may be way ahead of the curve on how to deal with today’s students. However, their efforts will make little difference if students aren’t aware of them.

Of the 104 colleges and universities Trellis Company surveyed for its Fall 2021 Student Financial Wellness Survey, 91 had at least one food pantry available for students experiencing food insecurity. However, 62% of students were unaware their institution had one; of this group, 42% were reportedly food-insecure.

“Students, especially at-risk students, can’t take advantage of support if they can’t find it or if it’s not available when they are,” said Richa Batra, vice president of student success at Blackboard, according to Campus Technology.

Informing students of these services at orientation or in routine marketing messages is far from enough, according to Education Dynamics. Institutions must find more innovative ways to stress that support is available to students.

After all, if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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