What Prevents Isolation and Dropout for Nontraditional Students? Connection

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Produced by Carmen Mendoza.

Following is a transcript of the conversation. “There is a myriad of services that are typically available on campus that just aren’t available in the online world. And, as a result, those students are dropping out at twice the rate as their on-campus peers.” —Melvin Hines

Goldie Blumenstyk: Welcome to Innovation That Matters, a Chronicle of Higher Education podcast sponsored by HP. In this special series, we’ll be sharing the stories of change-makers working to improve equity in higher education. Hello, I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, and that voice you just heard is Melvin Hines, the co-founder and CEO of Upswing. Hey, Melvin, thanks for joining us today.

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Melvin Hines: Thank you for having me.

Blumenstyk: Upswing offers tutoring, coaching, a bunch of other services that I think we’ll get to, but before we do that, what really strikes me about your company is not so much about what you’re offering, but who you’re offering it to. Can you tell me a little bit about your approach to who you want to serve?

Hines: Yeah, sure. So Upswing works with colleges and universities to improve the graduation rates of online and nontraditional students. And by nontraditional, we typically refer to adult learners, student parents, veterans, first-generation students, basically those who don’t look like your typical 18- to 22-year-old on campus.

Blumenstyk: And why do you focus in on that population?

Hines: The biggest reason is that nontraditional students don’t get access to the same resources that everyone else does. If you are a working mom, and you’re watching a classroom video, you don’t get the opportunity to then ask a professor a question. For example, if you’re thinking about changing your major, who do you speak to about that? There is a myriad of services that are typically available on campus that just aren’t available in the online world. And, as a result, those students are dropping out at twice the rate as their on-campus peers. What’s even more unfortunate is that they pay the exact same amount in tuition as everyone else, and they don’t get the opportunity to get those same types of resources. And so we want to be able to help solve that.

Blumenstyk: What are some of the other challenges that you found that nontraditional students are facing?

Hines: Yeah, well, you know, it starts from Day 1. When you’re a nontraditional student and you are taking classes, it can feel isolating. You don’t get that camaraderie, that rah-rah feel that you typically expect from a college experience. No one seems to be there to help you ensure that you’re going to graduate. If you go to class tomorrow, that’s on you. And if you decide not to go to class tomorrow, that’s on you. I think that’s the single biggest issue that nontraditional students face is that they seem to feel like they’re out on an island.

Blumenstyk: They don’t have a cohort. They don’t have island mates, I guess.

Hines: Exactly, exactly. And then on top of that, you have all the added burdens of being a mom, for example, being a child to aging parents who you might be having to take care of, having to be someone who’s working, having to figure out your college career after returning as a veteran. There are all these just additional burdens that are on you, and suddenly you’re having to figure out this entire thing called college as well. And so we want to really help them to navigate those sometimes tumultuous circumstances that are keeping them from being able to finish the race. And ideally, we want to help them to improve their families’ lives and their lives and really kind of change things for the future for themselves.

Blumenstyk: I mean, obviously, this past year, 15 months or so with Covid, there have been a lot of really extra burdens placed on all students, but certainly nontraditional students, people who have been working, people who have been trying to do homeschooling with their children while they themselves have been going to school. What did you discover this year? What were the particular challenges that students you were serving were facing that were really Covid related?

Hines: Oh, man, where do you even begin? I would say the very first thing that we saw out the gate was a bit of a shock factor of: Suddenly you have to become this remote student. Because nontraditional students aren’t always online students. A lot of them are taking night and weekend classes. But when college shut down, they suddenly had to transition to be an online student. A lot of them weren’t used to the technologies that people were using; things like Zoom and so many others to connect in with campuses weren’t familiar to them. On top of that, a lot of them were also parents. And so suddenly they didn’t just have to figure out how to be a remote student themselves, they had to figure out how to become a tutor, a teacher, and everything else for their kids at the exact same time. A lot of them didn’t have access to good broadband. Many didn’t even have access to laptops. In fact, several students reached out to us requesting, Is there any way that I can get in touch outside of a laptop? Because I don’t have one. And then after all that finally got settled in, and people were coming up with ways to circumnavigate those circumstances, they suddenly were hit with isolationism, hit with anxiety over a pandemic that was spreading across the world and, you know, killing untold numbers of people. And they were recognizing that there wasn’t really an outlet for them to connect to those who could help them just make sense of the world. It’s all those reasons all together that we saw so many students decide that: You know what, this just isn’t for me. And they ultimately dropped out and have wondered whether or not they are capable of coming back and finishing where they began.

Blumenstyk: So in response to all those kinds of challenges that you saw this year and in previous years, how has Upswing adapted its operations? I think initially you were started primarily as a tutoring service, but it seems like you’ve broadened your reach a little bit.

Hines: That’s true. That’s true. Even before Covid, we were looking at: How can we support students all along their entire journey? So we started in the academic space with tutoring, and then we eventually added on the ability for advisers to connect with students virtually. But then we started thinking about, Well, how do we create that community aspect? And we did that by developing Ana, which is a virtual assistant that’s completely over text message and that will reach out to students and nudge them and encourage them and remind them on important dates and topics that they need to stay on top of. So we were kind of already thinking about, How can we continue to expand the work that we’re doing to ensure that those stumbling blocks don’t become insurmountable for the students that are nontraditional students?

Blumenstyk: So, Ana, it’s like a chatbot or something? Is Ana a person, or is Ana an AI tool?

Hines: Ana is actually a mix of both. So 80 percent of the questions can be answered automatically through Ana, but the main goal of Ana is to understand what the real struggle is of the student that Ana is speaking to and figure out how we can connect that student to someone on campus who can help them to better navigate those tumultuous waters. So, for example, you might have a student who is in a math class, and Ana may say, Hey, I see you have a calculus test coming up soon. Are you prepared? Do you feel ready for it? And the student can reply back and say, No, I’m really struggling. Well, Ana will be able to recognize that that is taking place and then will connect in with someone who’s actually a calculus tutor on their campus, find out what time they’re available next, and shoot back those available times. And so what Ana is doing is giving the students the ability to take control of their future all through text message. And by…

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