While this fall will mark a return to the classroom for many, remote learning is expected to be part of higher education learning in both the near and long-term. Specifically, lower income students that don’t otherwise have consistent access to transportation will be drawn by the allure that remote learning has to offer. It allows low-income students to better balance the demands of work, their education and other potential familial demands that most other students don’t face.
Yet setting up a productive online learning environment for students can come with significant hurdles. Students in low-income households often lack basic access to computers or the internet to fully participate in a digital classroom environment.
To combat this challenge, institutions need to consider strategies that can ultimately close the digital equity gap between students of various income levels. Here are four best practices for supporting lower-income students.
Help students find accessible technology
Given that most students won’t have access to computers on-campus, many low-income students resort to writing essays on their laptops. However, there are several organizations that provide affordable solutions to laptops and software that they’ll need to succeed in the classroom.
If discounted computers aren’t an option, consider storing a stockpile of rental laptops to loan them free of charge to students that don’t have the means to get one on their own. Institutions should also play an active role in helping students get access to Wi-Fi or provide access to a mobile hotspot so they can get online with little friction.
Higher education IT teams need to listen to the needs of low-income students to determine the best course of action. The important distinction is that no size fits all and that institutions should be flexible in order to provide technology in a way that is most accessible to low-income learners.
Streamline communication across departments
Students don’t inherently understand which department is best-suited to answer certain questions. And in a remote environment, students may feel a lack of support if they can’t get their questions answered easily and effectively.
Institutions need to get in front of this challenge by investing in technology that allows administrators to support students through text, social media and other messaging apps through a single platform. Remote learning requires offering a greater level of support, and institutions should be prepared to meet students where they are.
Provide increased technical support
Without the luxury of having IT support around, students are left alone to manage any technical issues that occur. Yet low-income students often don’t have the same technical savvy as other students that are more accustomed to troubleshooting their own problems or finding the answers on Google.
Institutions that assume the same is true for low-income students will risk losing them either due to academic performance or lack of motivation. Offer after-hours tech support so students can balance going to class with jobs or other responsibilities - without forcing hour-long waits to get answers.
Since IT teams tend to be understaffed, many institutions are relying on AI chatbots to help close the gap when students need support after traditional work hours. This can ultimately help students increase their chances of staying enrolled and provide the help necessary to keep students engaged.
Consider test-optional admissions
Several institutions are considering test-optional admissions as a strategy to attract a more diverse class of students. Underserved student populations often struggle with taking standardized tests, in addition to the logistics of getting to a testing site.
In addition to being a hassle, there are also studies that point to standardized tests not being good indicators of academic success in the classroom. By instituting test-optional admissions, you will make your application process more inviting to students who otherwise would be discouraged from applying.
Institutions must remember that no two students are alike and that allowing them to put their best foot forward in a holistic sense will ultimately lead to a more diverse student population. Given that half of four-year colleges and universities are expected to be test-optional by 2022, it is only a matter of time before test-optional admissions becomes a norm within higher education.
Underserved student populations are at the greatest risk of being left behind as institutions trend towards embracing remote learning. Given that many lower-income students live in rural areas, institutions need to put a greater emphasis on bridging the gap when it comes to digital equity. But institutions that aren’t yet positioned to support these students shouldn’t panic.
Instead, they should embrace digital transformation and think outside the box when it comes to solving the complex challenges of tomorrow. For more strategies on supporting lower-income learners, read: How Community Colleges Can Attract First-Generation College Students.