Strategies to Re-Engage and Support Learners in Postsecondary Education after the Pandemic


Strategies to Re-Engage and Support Learners in Postsecondary Education after the Pandemic

February’s Advance CTE Research Review shared how the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic impacted the postsecondary education plans of more than 19 million Americans, with learners from low-income households being most impacted. As the United States begins to turn from the pandemic, state and postsecondary leaders will begin to develop and implement plans to reconnect learners with postsecondary college and career programs. Two new reports identify strategies states can take to effectively reengage learners with the postsecondary system. First, new data from the Strada Network illustrates how the postsecondary plans of high school learners who graduated in 2020 and 2021 were affected and what it will take to reconnect these learners with college and career pathways. Also, a series of research studies from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) identifies successful approaches by community colleges to support adult learners of color to postsecondary program completion and into high-wage, in-demand careers.
Disruption to High School Post-Graduation Plans
According to Strada Network’s survey of more than 1,000 high school graduates in the class of 2020 and 2021, many learners had started the process of planning for their postsecondary futures before disconnecting. About three-fourths of learners had at least spoken to a school counselor or other adult about their postsecondary options. Many had applied and even received acceptance letters into a college or other postsecondary education program, although the data show the class of 2021 disconnected earlier at this stage of the process than the class of 2020. Furthermore, Black and Latinx learners were more likely to report having applied and received acceptance into a postsecondary program than White learners before deciding to change their education plans.

Despite being further along in the postsecondary planning process than their White peers, Black and Latinx learners were more likely to report having their plans disrupted. Overall, the primary reasons given for disruption of postsecondary plans were stress and anxiety and financial pressures. This is unsurprising given that learners were dealing with the challenges of remote instruction for much of 2020 and 2021 in addition to the stressors brought on by the pandemic and its impact on the economy, which disproportionately impacted people of color. Latinx learners were more likely than any other racial/ethnic group to indicate that financial pressures disrupted their postsecondary plans while Black learners were more likely to cite health concerns.
Re-Engaging and Supporting Learners
Learners understand the importance of postsecondary education to their future career and life success; however, they will need support in order to get back on track. The survey data revealed the most important supports learners will need:

  • Advising – Learners need someone who can help them navigate the financial aid process and determine the best career path.
  • Ability to Earn and Learn – Learners need opportunities to get an education while earning money. Flexible scheduling and opportunities such as Registered Apprenticeship programs can support them in this regard.
  • Easier Process for Financial Aid – Sixty-one percent of learners with low income say it has become more difficult to find information about how to pay for postsecondary education. Learners need better information on how to apply for financial aid that is easy to understand and not burdensome.
  • Labor Market Information and its Alignment to Postsecondary Credentials – Learners want clear information on the jobs available to them and the postsecondary credentials necessary to obtain them.

Supporting Postsecondary and Adult Learners at Community Colleges
While high school graduates struggle to navigate their postsecondary plans as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of adults over 25 years of age who are enrolling at a community college to continue their postsecondary education or pursue a postsecondary credential for the first time has declined by 11 percent according to a new series of studies by CCRC. This is most concerning for Black, Latinx and Native American learners who are less likely than White and Asian learners to have obtained a credential beyond a high school diploma. A September 2020 Advance CTE Research Review illustrated the importance of postsecondary CTE and the role of community colleges in an equitable coronavirus economic recovery. The studies presented by CCRC address key challenges facing adult learners of color including career development, job placement, and articulation and transfer policies; support to learners who are part-time students and balancing family, work and other responsibilities; and, efforts to ensure that learners of color feel fully welcomed, recognized and included in all campus-based services and programs. 
Study 1, Aligning Short-Term Credentials with Community College Degree Programs, suggests that state and institutional leaders should ensure short-term credential and certificate programs are stackable and can articulate to a degreed program. For example, the Wisconsin Technical College System leveraged the 2009 federal Trade Adjustment Act Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program to build career pathways into existing associate degree programs, developing and expanding new and modified pathways that begin with learners earning short-term certificates upon completion of coursework that is connected to a longer-term “parent” program leading to an associate or even a bachelor’s degree.  
Study 2, Bundling and Sequencing Student Support Services, encourages institutions to integrate the delivery of academic and non-academic supports (bundle) and align support with student needs through each stage of their postsecondary journey (sequence).The table below (from the study) illustrates what this would look like in practice:

Lastly, study 3, Culturally Sustaining Supports and Instruction, encourages institutions to use a Culturally Engaging College Environments framework to shift responsibility for integration into the postsecondary institution’s culture away from learners and on to the institution itself, thus building and maintaining an environment that intentionally rectifies historical and current discrimination and neglect experienced by historically marginalized learner groups so that each learner feels welcomed, prepared and supported to achieve their college and career goals. For example, at Salish Kootenai College, a private tribal land-grant community college in Montana, leaders have integrated Native American and Salish/Kootenai culture into the school’s curriculum by designing courses to meet the unique needs of the community including teaching learners in the forestry program how to address water resource challenges on tribal lands or teaching learners in the education program how to prepare for the specific education needs of Native elementary and middle school learners using traditional Native American teaching methods.
As state CTE and postsecondary education leaders address the challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, it is critically important to re-engage and support learners, particularly learners of color, who have been most impacted. This research offers strategies to support learner access to and success in postsecondary college and career pathways. Incorporating one or more of these strategies can help ensure an equitable economic recovery leveraging the power of CTE. 
Brian Robinson, Policy Associate
For more information on access and equity in Career Technical Education, and other great topics, please visit the Learning that Works Resource Center!