Overcoming college student technology access barriers amidst the pandemic.
GUEST COLUMN | by Magda El Baggar
Federal COVID relief funding provided to higher education institutions has allowed many colleges and universities to offer academic programs despite myriad challenges presented by the pandemic. While a portion of the relief funding has provided much needed financial assistance to students, it has also allowed institutions to invest in technology improvements.
With this additional funding and the need to stand up sustainable online learning and remote operations in short order, institutions that previously delayed new technology implementations are now moving forward full-steam ahead with digital transformation initiatives – many of which are focused on enrollment and financial aid processing.
‘…institutions that previously delayed new technology implementations are now moving forward full-steam ahead with digital transformation initiatives…’
And even if particular solutions are not perfect, there is no going back.
Let’s face it, most technology involves significant cost, and once an institution makes a technology investment it’s often for the long term. Online education for some vocational programs may be particularly challenging to replicate in-person lessons, but even those institutions are applying some type of hybrid model. Some even argue that schools which are unable to keep up technologically during and post COVID will be left behind.
Technology Explosion Becomes Status Quo
We’ve seen an explosion of technology and innovation across higher ed landscapes, ranging from institutions implementing electronic and smart forms, automated workflows and built-in regulatory and compliance features to institutions redefining their overall online presence.
We’ve also seen optical character recognition – which takes text and converts it to electronic data – APIs integrating information within seconds, online chats and analytics, artificial intelligence capabilities, and many more examples, all which can be delivered via a mobile device.
Once these conveniences are offered to the students, they become the status quo for student satisfaction.
Recalibrating Expectations Around Student Technology Engagement
While this nudge toward more widespread institutional digital transformation is proving beneficial for many schools to deliver a higher quality experience for their students overall, the new reality is that students are now expected to consume vast amounts of online content and complete administrative processes online. However, many students are simply unable to consume electronic content as expected due to accessibility limitations.
We continue to hear stories about student lack of access, internet service or even basic computers. In fact, Cal Matters reported that more than 100,000 low-income college students in California lack internet access. In the higher education community, community colleges are most impacted by this challenge as they serve more low-income students that any other higher ed institution.
Considering Low-Income Student Impacts
The National College Access Network estimates that 50% of low-income students are selected for verification process each year, and 25% will give up on applying for aid. In addition to current economic challenges, schools must consider how low-income students will be impacted further if they lack a working internet connection or a proper computer at home to complete the process online. High-poverty schools eligible for federal Title I money saw a more than 12 percent decline in FAFSA applications this February compared to the same time last year. Institutions adapting new solutions must ensure that the new shiny technology is not disenfranchising critical student populations.
According to analysis by the National College Attainment Network, schools with a high percentage of students of color experienced a 14.6 percent drop in financial aid applications. What is unusual about the decline is that during times of recession, we historically see an increase in FAFSA applications and increase in enrollment. This time, high levels or unemployment are not driving students back to school; instead the enrollments declines have continued.
Lack of financial resources are not the only reason enrollment and FAFSA applications are down. A report examining changing in California’s FAFSA applications during COVID-19 highlights that “the conditions of this pandemic create substantial barriers to entry, with many respondents reporting lack of reliable computer usage or internet, and greater financial need than normal.”
‘Ultimately, technology decisions will yield the best student success outcomes if all students are able to receive optimal service, accessibility, and efficient processing.’
However this does not mean that four-year institutions and community colleges should not adapt new technology and or digital processes; rather they should be selective in choosing solutions with enough flexibility to accommodate students at all levels – from the most sophisticated online user to students who may need to drop off a document at the community college office. Ultimately, technology decisions will yield the best student success outcomes if all students are able to receive optimal service, accessibility, and efficient processing.
Recommendations for Expanded Student Technology Access
Universities and colleges are well aware of the technology gap, and many have rushed to address this with HEERF relief funds, some even providing their students with computers and access. Yet for many others, the closing of campuses, computer labs, libraries and internet cafes meant that access to the “new norm” online environment was eliminated.
When adopting new technology solutions, colleges and universities must acknowledge the access gap and adapt solutions that will provide access to a high number of disenfranchised families. While multiple enterprise-wide considerations factor into new technology adoption, institutions should consider these key accessibility items for new applicants, especially during the enrollment and financial aid process.
- Document submission flexibility – Ability to accommodate both electronic, email, paper document submission and collection. Provide alternative ways for document submission for students with limited internet/technology access.
- Processing/workflow uniformity – Ability to process all files timely regardless of submission type. Solutions should provide one processing workflow for both electronic and email/paper submissions. Those using alternative methods should not experience additional delays.
- Smart phone accessibility – Many students/families are smart phone internet users only with no broadband internet at home. Students may be able to take advantage of electronic processing if the user interface is device responsive and can easily be accessed via phone.
- Simple and intuitive student interface – Guided processing for those less comfortable with technology.
- Multiple communication methods – Ability for schools to develop communication plans that allow for touch points based on activity or non-activity/interactions.
During uncertain times like these, proactively ensure technology flexibility and accessibility is key, for both students and administrators.
Magda El Baggar is a Strategic Consultant at Anthology, a leading provider of higher education solutions that support the entire learner lifecycle. Connect with her through LinkedIn.