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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Tonya Drake and Michelle Jungbauer: Higher ed needs to do more for student well-being

By Tonya Drake, Ph.D., and Michelle Jungbauer

By Tonya Drake, Ph.D., and Michelle Jungbauer

Without a doubt, students have felt the effects of the pandemic with enrollment rates dropping, financial aid applications down and student mobility becoming a growing concern. At the same time, natural disasters and other environmental hazards increasingly cause temporary or permanent displacement, affecting 1 in 10 homes in the U.S. during 2021, according to a recent CoreLogic report.

These factors are especially difficult for underrepresented and rural students and those who are economically challenged. And they aren’t stopping: A new poll found that 76% of undergraduate students considered dropping out in 2021 compared to 42% in 2020 – and students cite stress as the primary reason.

Yet at Western Governors University (WGU), one of the nation’s largest accredited, online, nonprofit educational institutions, the number of graduates increased by double digits during the first 20 months of the pandemic. Why?

We believe it’s because we know that a one-size solution does not fit all students. Despite having more than 130,000 students, we connect locally with each student. One way we do this is through our Environmental Barriers (EVB) program, which identifies individual student challenges and employs personal connections to offer the direct support that may make the difference between a student staying engaged and one who drops out. The EVB initiative began as a pilot in 2017 and has since been refined and expanded to support our students.

Washington state has been devastated by wildfires and major flooding over the past few years, leading the EVB team to reach out to close to 500 students living in potentially impacted areas. Other events have included the heat dome, windstorm damage and the Almira school fire in 2021.

Students have also been impacted by the effects of COVID-19. Across the Northwest Region, close to 29,000 students have experienced documented impact, including 481 who were highly impacted by hospitalizations and extended quarantines. The EVB program has been especially vital for students in the College of Health Professions (CHP), many of whom are frontline health care workers.

The EVB protocol, called “Reach-Assess-Assist,” is deceptively simple. In the wake of major traumatic events, it helps inform university leadership about how students, many of whom are working adults, are staying engaged and on track.

The key is in using data analytics efficiently to flag events that may affect students, determine which students may be involved and quickly respond to support students’ educational plans. The process involves identifying:

Needs: We monitor and categorize events, which may also include acts of violence, disease outbreaks or even the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which is affecting more than 100 of our students.

Affected students: Each student is assigned a mentor to help them navigate online learning and the need to balance work-life priorities. After an event, these mentors reach out to show support and determine the type of challenges each student is facing.

Impact: Our system flags key barriers to a student’s academic success. Then WGU’s community of care uses the data to create individualized mitigation strategies for students.

How we can help: Support may include emergency financial aid, term extensions, mental health counseling or other interventions.

Most often, impacted students want to maintain their studies and achieve their goals. Adversity can even strengthen their resolve. Sometimes, when their world is turned upside down, their coursework and their WGU community can be a safe place to come to.

We believe all universities can do the same and invest the time to dig deeper into those barriers that slow or prevent students’ progress and design solutions to help students overcome those obstacles to their success.

Tonya Drake, Ph.D., of Lake Forest Park, Washington, is the chancellor and regional vice president for Western Governors University. Michelle Jungbauer, of Arvada, Colorado, is senior manager of Specialized Student Services, MBA. Learn more at www.wgu.edu

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