Sophomore Naena Luna knows how hard it is to navigate the complicated college admissions process coming from a rural Texas community with few resources.
Luna, who now attends Coastal Bend College virtually, didn’t want COVID-19 to trip up other students from her hometown of Charlotte, where she often saw classmates give up in frustration. So she mentors high school students by guiding them through college applications and the financial aid processes as well as discussing their career goals.
Luna now uses resources from a new statewide initiative that streamlines information and even leverages artificial intelligence to better inform students about their options and keep them on track in pursuing a higher education.
“I would always encourage them to attend and (stress) how it would be beneficial for them and their loved ones,” Luna said. “It’s important to continue to help students gain access to college and learn about the resources that they may need.”
Student enrollment is down at universities and colleges across the country as the coronavirus continues to disrupt plans. Postsecondary enrollment declined 2.5% in fall 2020, almost twice the rate of enrollment decline in fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Undergraduate enrollment was the primary cause for the decline, decreasing by 3.6% from 2019.
Texas university enrollment declined similarly — at about 3% — but public two-year colleges were hit the hardest with nearly an 8% drop, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
As remote learning and COVID-19 disruptions made it more difficult for last year’s seniors to access college help throughout the nation, many colleges are still closed to in-person operations, complicating a student’s access to school representatives.
A new initiative called Future Focused Texas wants to stop declining enrollment by taking a personal look at the needs of seniors and college students as well as their counselors and mentors through a public-private collaborative that simplifies resources and leverages innovative tools.
“We just want to make sure the reason that they’re not pursuing higher education is not because they don’t have access to the information or resources they need to make an informed choice,” said Shareea Woods, director of the Texas College Access Network, which is part of the initiative.
Kayla Devora-Jones, dean of student services and accessibility at Coastal Bend College, said her school relies on a team of “success coaches” who provide support and workshops for potential and current students that include study tips, career exploration, note-taking methods and more. However, this suddenly changed when COVID-19 hit.
Forced to pivot from their traditional face-to-face advising sessions and workshops, Coastal Bend’s coaches met with students virtually while also providing them with links to resources as virtual museums, virtual workouts to stay healthy, and more.
Despite Coastal Bend counselors making necessary adjustments in the virtual setting, reaching students was increasingly difficult as they flew under the radar due to education’s change in formats. Some college students disappeared from the headcount entirely by the fall semester.
Along the Texas Gulf Coast, Coastal Bend college set a record high enrollment with 4,818 students enrolled in Spring 2019. But the pandemic contributed to a 14% decline in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2020.
Counselors and programs designed to identify and provide help to students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggled to reach them or keep them engaged.
“Their greatest challenge was ensuring that the students are aware of college deadlines since they are not on campus and keeping them motivated to meet the deadlines,” Devora-Jones said.
Students told counselors it was difficult to access college personnel remotely. They wanted to feel connected to the campus community even if they weren’t physically at school.
Preliminary data from the Texas College Access Network shows that the state had a 17% FAFSA completion rate as of October 2020, a 3% decrease from last year.
The goal of the Future Focused Texas initiative is to reverse such trends.
When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, Educate Texas met with its partners who work with high school and college counselors across the state to discuss what they were seeing on their campuses. Many were overwhelmed with constantly changing information while students and families also struggled to get the latest details they needed to keep children on track for college.
“It was an interesting dynamic of a lot of information coming but then still a lot of confusion about what to do,” Woods said.
So Educate Texas and partners focused on simplifying information and resources. For example, they share weekly assignments and moving-to-college checklists to keep students on track, videos encouraging students to preserve through the application process and images for social media posts to flag upcoming deadlines.
The initiative now has more than 730 college-access professionals participating in the program.
“One of the great things about Future Focused Texas is that we are making it easy and giving a suite of tools for the counselors to operate in an online COVID environment to reach kids,” said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas.
The initiative provides more one-on-one support by leveraging a statewide virtual advising chatbot called ADVi. So far, roughly 151,000 high school seniors have opted into receiving the text messaging through the service.
Virtual advisers addressed specific questions in more than 5,000 one-on-one conversations through the chatbot since it launched with Future Focused Texas in October.
Before the pandemic, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had worked for a year and half to create the artificial intelligence bot to serve students needing information about the college application process, said Jerel Booker, assistant commissioner of college readiness and success who oversaw the effort.
“Fast forward to COVID hits and we’re like, ‘We already have this. We’re ready to roll it out anyway,’” Booker said. “But now, it better be ready.”
The coordinating board provided the virtual chatbot to the initiative, which helped build out better content, Booker said.
Students text ADVi questions related to attending a Texas public college or university — such as how financial aid works; what tests are needed; how to transfer credits — and the program connects students with related answers submitted by advisers. If the chatbot is unable to answer a question, a college adviser will contact the student within 48 hours.
“We’re getting more and more students” to participate, Booker said, adding that “the more questions we get, the smarter the bots get.”
Still, the initiative faces other challenges that COVID-19 exacerbated for students.
In rural areas, for example, those interested in college already struggled with limited resources, including the lack of nonprofits to help and spotty internet access, which makes accessing the Future Focused Texas’ streamlined resources difficult for them.
Some Texas students from low-income families don’t own a phone, so they wouldn’t be able to opt into ADVi’s text-message advising services. If a student does not have a phone or computer, it’s difficult to be contacted.
And not all of the initiative’s information is available in Spanish. For example, the ADVi program is only available in English. Meanwhile, about 20% of the state’s students attending public school from prekindergarten through high school were English-language learners in 2019-20, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Still, officials are encouraged by the counselors and students leveraging the tools and are exploring other ways to expand the initiative’s reach.
“We’re in a different time right now,” Devora-Jones said. “We have to figure out ways to get out there and help students and go where they are.”
This story was reported with grant help from the Solutions Journalism Network.
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, The Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network, Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of the Education Lab’s journalism.