The Higher Ed Podcast Series: The Importance of Communication in Education

Communication is arguably one of the most important yet difficult parts of being human. Great leaders use words to inspire and connect people, and then they follow those words up with corresponding actions. Not communicating well, on the other hand, can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. This is exactly the case in the current education system, from kindergarten through higher ed, and it needs to be addressed and improved upon so that students and schools can work together to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic and overcome the monumental challenges it presents.

In Engine’s latest Higher Ed Podcast, Graduation Alliance COO Fernando Moreno talks about the communication gap between students and schools during the pandemic. Graduation Alliance is an organization that seeks to assist students in their education pathways to ensure they have all the resources, support, and empowerment they need to navigate the education system successfully and prepare to join the workforce after that journey ends, whether that’s after high school or college. This support comes in a variety of ways, from providing emotional and mental health resources to on-demand solutions. In the COVID-19 era, Moreno explains that they’ve been very busy offering free webinars and speaking with families and administrators to bridge lost communication. This kind of work is crucial because, in the rapid shift from in-person to online learning, there are many cracks that students can fall through. And while administrators are hopefully doing the best they can, such rapid and drastic changes leave them busy and unable to answer every question that comes in a timely manner.

Fernando shared the unfortunate news that the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shift to online learning has created a huge lack of engagement and attendance in schools. Reports from earlier this year indicate that more than 40% of teenagers didn’t attend a single class in the last parts of 2020’s spring semester, when the nation-wide quarantine forced students to switch to online learning almost overnight. A staggering 55% of teachers reported missing over half of their normal students. Colleges experienced a similar phenomenon as they noticed less engagement from their students in the second half of the Spring semester, and the astounding dropout rates that followed.

While factors such as motivation and mental health certainly play a role in these absences, many of the dropouts are low-income students who do not have the necessary resources to fully engage in online learning. Graduation Alliance works most closely with these communities, and Moreno explains some of the barriers that these students face: “A lot of these students are caregivers themselves…their parents do not have childcare, especially [with] COVID that’s going on. So they’re not even engaged in school. I mean, you’re trying to survive, that’s not [your] priority, right? What we’re seeing also is, schools gave the students that outlet, right, so maybe that was my only meal that I was able to get, and now that’s gone. And so now I’m hungry, I got to take care of my brother and sisters, and yet you want to expect me to [be] concentrate in school? How’s that going to work?” This reality is true for students of all ages, from elementary school to higher ed, and it’s causing major problems in their educational progress.

Initiating communication and attendance recovery is crucial in keeping students on track. Research that was conducted on New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina found that it can take up to two full school years for students to recover lost learning after large setbacks. As some students log on and others do not, a huge disparity is forming in this generation that is unfortunately driven by socioeconomic and class differences. If continued, this crisis can create resounding effects in future workforces and civilian opportunities. Moreno lays out the questions that need to be asked when figuring out how to aid certain students: “How can we take a systematic and persistent outreach to all of the students with a differentiated treatment strategy based on a couple things? Number one is where they’re at. So a triage assessment, what are the risks that they have? And then based on those risks, what are the level of treatment that we need to do in order to get them back engaged?”

In order to initiate attendance recovery and keep students on track as the world searches for a vaccine, communication is the key factor to keep them there. Moreno describes the basic questions that students need to have answered “Do I have the information that I need to be successful? Basic information. Do I know how to log in? Do I know where to go for help? Is everything easy at the foot of my fingertips? That is extremely helpful, communication paths. Do students understand how to get communication with the teacher or anybody for that matter, whether it’s a life coach, a teacher, an admin? And can we do that quickly, that will alleviate some of the fears that we’re seeing from some of these students, and then just being paralyzed.” As schools have worked through several months of online learning, they’ve hopefully been able to make these simple yet crucial questions more available. That being said, there is still a wide swath of students who don’t know the answers, and another percent of them that never found them to begin with. In order to recover attendance rates in education, reaching out to these students and giving them a place to start despite their regression can help them make the progress they need. No matter how late in the game this happens, it’s never too late.

Not only is it important for students to be kept in the loop so that they can keep up with their education, but it’s important for institutions to stay diligent in communicating with and maintaining their students so they obtain the necessary revenue needed to stay open. Colleges have an especially large responsibility for this in order to make current and prospective students comfortable with the institution and confident in their college decision. With the major enrollment drops happening this year and the competition that comes with it, colleges who can’t maintain clear and consistent communication may lose students to other institutions who can. Engine’s latest white paper explores ways for colleges and universities to utilize clear communication to make up for enrollment gaps.

Communication is difficult, and it’s always a two-way street. That means that education institutions, students, and parents need to work together to facilitate productive conversations that answer questions as clearly as possible. Doing so will create success for the students and their schools, and keep everyone better prepared to navigate through the pandemic so they can stay on track to be successful afterward. To learn more about this topic from expert Fernando Moreno, check out Engine’s Higher Ed Podcast and subscribe to keep learning about the state of higher ed from industry experts.