Lean in to Support Vulnerable Students

Six strategies to help students feel more connected and engaged as they make the move to remote learning.

AS COVID-19 spread from country to country, it was clear that higher education institutions around the world would never be the same. Asked to leave their campuses and take classes from home, many students expressed bewilderment, frustration, and fear over the sudden change in their college experiences. 

Unfortunately, the emotional toll that this transition has had on the world’s approximately 200 million college students has not been uniformly shared. The pandemic has had the greatest impact on nontraditional students—those who are working their way through college or who have children at home. Some must compete with their school-aged children for internet bandwidth and quiet spaces. Many have been furloughed or laid off from their jobs. Still others are facing overwhelming frustration as they figure out how to access classroom instruction and upload assignments.

Screenshot of student texting need to drop out of school 

Many schools have learned the value of “nudging” students
with text messages that remind them of deadlines, invite
them to take surveys, offer encouragement, and recommend
resources. Once students become comfortable with such
messages, they sometimes respond by detailing their
challenges and feelings of frustration. A school's support
staff can step in to provide personal attention or 
counseling to help steer students through obstacles.

The study “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” identifies the primary reasons why students choose to drop out of college. Their top reason? They find it too difficult to balance their coursework with their work and family commitments. Unfortunately, most schools lack the capacity to have proactive conversations with students or to identify resources that could help them continue with their programs. Without access to the proper help, some students believe they have no option but to drop out.

These challenging times make it more important than ever for colleges and universities to institute or strengthen student support services. Only when students have the tools they need to effectively manage stressful circumstances will they begin to envision themselves as future graduates again.


At Upswing, an organization that provides academic and emotional support to students across the U.S., we have been working with many struggling nontraditional students as they navigate a significantly changed world. Since COVID-19 forced school closures, demand from the students accessing support services on our platform has increased by more than 300 percent compared to the same period last year.

From February to May, we asked students what types of interventions they needed most. Their concerns largely fell into five categories: coping with the disruption to their normal activities, adjusting to working from home, finding the resources they need for remote learning, seeking support for their mental health, and thinking about their futures this summer and beyond.

It’s true that higher education institutions are managing their own challenges in these unprecedented times. Even so, it is more important than ever that they also make deliberate accommodations to curb students’ frustrations and fears.


Luckily, colleges and universities can help both traditional and nontraditional students maintain their academic performance and stay engaged in their courses by adopting six support strategies:

1. Create a feedback loop with support staff. Unfortunately, when students are struggling, they often do not reach out to others for help or communicate their needs. This means that their instructors are the first line of defense to help them cope with the disruption. All faculty should be encouraged to invite students to share if they are feeling overwhelmed with the adjustments. And if students are falling behind or have openly communicated that they are thinking of dropping out, there should be a system in place that allows faculty to share their concerns with support staff.

To put this feedback loop in place, schools should be sure that professors know which support staff to contact directly for particular issues. Faculty and staff also should have consistent meetings as a way to create an ongoing exchange where they can share information, express concerns, and remove roadblocks that could prevent students from progressing. 

2. Reassess—and, when necessary, adjust—tutoring hours. Students studying from home access services at different times than they did on campus. For instance, we found that during a 30-day period in spring 2020, as the pandemic worsened, 130,000 different users accessed our tutoring platform to connect with campus resources.

The chart below shows what percentage of our users logged on to our platform at different times during the week (rounded to the nearest 0.25 percent). It shows 24-hour blocks of time, starting each day at midnight; each block represents an hour—for example, Monday 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. is a block. All times correspond to the time zones of the respective users across the country.


Chart of student use of tutoring support

This chart shows the percentage of our platform's 130,000 users who logged in each hour over the course of a week during the pandemic. Blue represents 0.25 percent or less of the 130,000 users; green represents approximately 0.5 percent of users; peach represents 1 percent; and red represents 1.5 percent or more. The boxes outlined in black with yellow numbers represent the times that most colleges make support staff available to students—typically between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday.


Over the 30 days that we tracked user activity, we found that students logged on during normal school hours—Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.—only around one-third of the time. The highest percentages of students logged on Monday from noon to 6 p.m. and Tuesday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. However, if schools are providing support services primarily during these “busiest” hours, many students will not be able to receive help when they need it most.

Our analysis shows that students were active in the evenings Monday through Thursday. One out of five students signed up for weekend sessions, and 6.5 percent of all students looked for tutoring between noon and midnight. Moreover, two hours of peak usage—Mondays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.—fall outside the typical hours many colleges offer live support.

Of course, the simple response is for institutions to increase the number of hours they make support services available to students. While budget constraints prevent many institutions from doing so, schools could provide support to more students simply by shifting their typical hours of service.

For example, schools could ask one or two of their tutors to shift their hours to different times of day or to work on Fridays or weekends rather than Wednesdays and Thursdays. Alternatively, they could shift their office hours, depending on their own students’ behavior—for example, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to noon to 6 p.m. If schools made these simple changes, they could support far more of their students, including many nontraditional students who are most at risk of dropping out.

3. Encourage faculty to engage students online. Many faculty members have historically viewed engaging with students online as less important than teaching their physical courses. But in online environments, faculty’s extracurricular interactions with students are crucial to improving student retention.

We have observed that many obstacles students face involve course-related questions that professors could easily resolve in a quick conversation. For this reason, schools should set aside time during faculty orientations to emphasize the importance of creating welcoming atmospheres for online students. Invite faculty to collaborate with their colleagues on best practices for engaging and building rapport with students, such as setting up virtual office hours, using messaging systems to check in on students, and being attentive to students’ questions or concerns.


4. Integrate academic resources into online courses. Students often need to hear about academic resources through multiple channels—and from people they trust and view as mentors—before they’ll seek out those resources themselves. Therefore, institutions should continually promote resources such as tutoring, writing help, or other services that provide students with initial feedback on assignments and encourage them to think more critically.

Faculty can integrate these resources into their syllabi, link to them in online classrooms and learning management systems, and even incorporate them within individual assignments. Some faculty offer points or grades to students who offer proof they have attended tutoring sessions. The more often students hear about these services, the more likely they will be to leverage them—and the higher quality work they will produce.

5. Make students aware of mental health resources. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we sent several messages to student users of our platform to spark discussions around mental health. Through these conversations, we learned that many students aren’t aware of the resources available to support their mental well-being. At this time, especially, schools should check in with students to learn how they’re managing this stressful period of their lives and whether they are struggling with nonacademic issues that might cause them to drop a class—or drop out altogether.

In these instances, schools can connect students to counseling services where they can speak to professionals about personal issues, or refer them to teletherapy apps such as Meta that connect students to counselors via smartphone. Students whose needs are acute and who need immediate support can connect to the Crisis Textline, just by texting “Help” to 741741. 

6. Promote any changes the institution is making. According to one study, three out of four students were unhappy with the quality of the online learning their institutions delivered when schools closed in the spring. While most students recognized that schools needed time to adjust to the pandemic, many might be likely to drop out if schools haven’t made significant improvements to their online course delivery for the fall semester. In our own survey, one student stated that she was considering not returning to her program in the fall, because she did not think she could handle another four months of the same experience.

Now is the time to anticipate this reaction and reach out to students. Schools that adopt the six strategies above should inform students that they are preparing to deliver fall courses that are more tailored to students’ needs. Messages to students should focus not only on the need for social distancing and adjustments to class schedules. Rather, they also should convey two important ideas: “We heard you” and “We are working to make your journey better.”

Schools should make sure students know of programs, tech support, tools, and other resources that can help them find remote internships or job opportunities, improve their mental health, maintain their academic performance, and set up home offices. By being proactive in anticipating student needs, schools are helping students through a difficult time in their lives and reassuring them that everything is being done to help them graduate.

Melvin Hines is the CEO and Marissa Rodriguez is the online student engagement expert at Upswing, an education technology firm based in Austin, Texas.