The Power of Personal Outreach

Personal outreach to students is a simple but effective tool to improve their experience, increase retention, and build a sense of belonging

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One of the most meaningful changes an institution can make is to shift their focus to include the experience of individual students. Frontier Set institutions have always focused on students’ experiences, but in 2020 this need was even more prevalent, when personal outreach to students proved to be a powerful tool to increase retention and build a sense of belonging.

Personal outreach can shed light on complex and pressing challenges, inform policy decisions, and help students feel their school is invested in their success.

Lorain County Community College (LCCC), for example, realized that understanding the experiences and barriers that different populations encounter was key to making transformational progress in closing equity gaps for students of color, students who are parents, and students experiencing poverty. In 2019, school leaders launched a “strategic collection of the student voice” effort, using focus groups and surveys to inform next steps, which included creating programs to foster belonging as well as opportunities to learn about racism. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, LCCC wanted to understand “the needs of students both at the individual level and the institutional level” and again undertook broad outreach to students, which enabled better student connection to services and supports while also informing the school’s broader communications plans.

When the pandemic forced San Jacinto College to move instruction online for more than 31,000 students, leaders started an outreach program called “San Jac Cares.” By reallocating time for many staff whose roles were impacted as on-campus operations decreased, leaders made it possible to reach out to all students and ask “How are you doing?” and “What do you need?” As a result of these conversations, students were connected to resources such as financial aid, IT, advising, mental health counseling, or food markets, to enable them to continue their academic journeys. Often, though, they “simply talked with them and discussed the current situation.” In post-call surveys, students commented that they were appreciative of the call and felt cared for. Additionally, of the original list of students who had not registered for the fall semester, nearly 5,000 registered after receiving a call from San Jac Cares. Fayetteville State University similarly engaged existing employees, including administrative support staff, advisors, and middle management in academic affairs to text, email, and call students to remind them about upcoming assignments, refer them to resources, and offer a listening ear. As an added bonus, this also allowed support staff to continue to be of service while they worked from home.

The American Association of State Colleges & Universities (AASCU), which works with six regional comprehensive universities in the Frontier Set, noted that throughout the pandemic, institutions became better versed in soliciting student needs via text messaging, chat functions, and emails that were all crafted with care. “These types of needs assessments have rarely been done at the institutional level consistently, but [they] are practices that our institutions will maintain after the pandemic is over because they felt that it communicated the ethic of care and students responded well,” they wrote.

Student outreach can also take shape as giving students more agency in their academic journeys.

For example, individual development plans have been core to advising at Delaware State University since 2015. At Delaware State, “students take ownership of personal, academic, and career goals to create individualized paths to success.” Students meet twice a semester with advisors to ensure that they stay on track. The school also utilizes early alerts, a “recruit-back” approach where advisors reach out to students who have not registered for classes, and a 15 Strong to Completion campaign to boost student retention, matriculation, and success rates.

Sometimes student outreach means making individuals feel a part of something bigger than themselves. For example, at Morehouse College, a historically Black college for men, each student is required to attend six semesters of the Crown Forum, an experience designed to give students “a greater understanding of self, a deeper appreciation of the Morehouse experience, and a more profound commitment to servant leadership and global citizenship.” In requiring students to participate in official ceremonies that honor Morehouse’s rich traditions, attend speaker series, and explore common readings, Morehouse creates a learning community that sustains the college’s mission.

While student outreach can take many different forms, the goal is often the same across the Frontier Set: boost achievement, retention, and feelings of belonging in order to improve equitable access to support services along students’ educational journeys.