News: Data, Research & Evaluation

Pivoting to Virtual Advising? Consider the Evidence and These Approaches

Monday, March 23, 2020  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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Making connections with students and families, earning their trust, and guiding them through unfamiliar processes is at the heart of the college access and success field. The coronavirus pandemic makes these three things much more difficult to accomplish in person (indeed, social distancing demands that these in-person interactions pause), but the possibility of guiding students virtually is a very real one. Much like manufacturers across the country pivoting to produce the supplies needed to treat the sick and combat coronavirus, NCAN members can also retool to virtually advise their students during this critical time of the year (and potentially beyond).

Please see a list of NCAN’s COVID-19 response resources for NCAN members.

This post needs a few caveats before it can proceed:

First, programs vary widely in their models, scope, approach, interventions, staffing structure, etc. Nothing below should be interpreted as one-size-fits-all.

Second, shifting a program’s model from primarily in-person to primarily virtual is difficult under any circumstances, let alone those currently facing the nation where uncertainty and worry are rampant.

Third, “virtual” below means any combination of interactions that include phone calls, emails, text messages, videoconferencing, etc.

Fourth and finally, it is unlikely that shifting to virtual advising is going to be a perfect replacement for any program or the students it serves; instead, the most realistic way for programs to think about this is cushioning students from the myriad negative effects of coronavirus on their postsecondary prospects or experiences. Students from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students, and students of color are likely to be disproportionately affected by uncertainty around the college-going process. Any support programs can continue to provide will keep more of these students on-track for postsecondary success.

What the Research Says About Virtual Advising

Starting with the evidence base is always advisable. The formal literature on virtual college and career readiness advising is a little thin. Both the What Works Clearinghouse and the Impact Genome Project show very few hits on terms related to virtual advising. One exception is in research around summer melt.

Drs. Lindsay Page and Ben Castleman are household names in the college access field for good reason, they’ve done a lot of work to investigate the best approaches for ensuring that students who intend to matriculate actually do so (see, e.g., Castleman, B. L., Page, L. C., & Schooley, K. (2014); Castleman, B.L. & Page, L.C. (2017). A 2019 study found very little evidence of changes to financial aid receipt or college enrollment from a sample of over 800,000 students who received nudges in various formats but concluded “our results suggest that a more effective path to scale may depend on increasing the number of local institutions implementing evidence-based campaigns. While scaling interventions locally is a costlier and more labor-intensive approach to scale, by maintaining a stronger connection to students as recipients, the sustenance of positive impacts could justify greater costs.”

To be fair, behavioral nudging like text message intervention is not the same as two-way, interactive postsecondary advising based on interpersonal relationships. There is some recent research on that as well:

A study (full text here) that added virtual advising on top of college application and financial aid information, access to SAT study support, weekly text message reminders, and gift cards for completing key milestones found no effect on enrollment or persistence but did find student self-reports of feeling supported and college applications both increased with results particularly suggestive for Hispanic students from Spanish-speaking families. (Table 1 starting on page 30 here has good insight into the interventions for programs looking for suggestions.)

The other evidence on virtual advising comes from evaluations of CollegePoint. Chalkbeat notes, “According to one study, students with access to CollegePoint were nearly 3 percentage points more likely to enroll in a college with a graduation rate over 70%. Another found that participating students were 1.5 percentage points more likely to go to a school rated as highly selective by Barron’s, though the schools weren’t any better by some other measures, including average SAT scores and graduation rates. Neither study found that CollegePoint affected eligible students’ overall likelihood of going to college, which was high for such students regardless.” As Ben Castleman notes in the article, "They both suggest, in my view, a similar magnitude of effect, and that’s a modest effect overall."

How Organizations Are Implementing Virtual Advising

Turning from literature to practice, there are some organizations who engage in virtual advising that members should consider.

The Dell Scholars Program is well known, and although its full intervention (which includes a scholarship) is unlikely to be replicable for most organizations. Dell Scholars uses the GradSnapp platform which coordinates a number of key functions, and some of these components of its virtual advising strategy might be adopted. For example:

Dell Scholars complete check-in surveys so staff can track progress and prioritize outreach to those who are struggling. Free tools like Survey Monkey and Google Forms democratize this approach, but the results need to be connected to an existing student information system.

Program staff can track and manage student supports in the system, and this looks like a log of all interactions (call, text, and email), including content and concerns that arise during the communication. This helps other advisors be able to get up to speed with a student’s scenario in the event they have to step in for a colleague.

The program tracks both student and staff tasks to make sure that nothing slips through the cracks in terms of deadlines and deliverables. This could look like a shared, student-centered cloud-based document with all of those dates so that both students and advisors are clear on next steps.

Find the Fit is a resource NCAN has shared with members before. It is an evidence-based college advising toolkit with resources aimed at students, parents, and advisors. It is definitely worth looking through in its entirety, but given this post’s focus on virtual advising, Find the Fit’s section on text messaging is particularly relevant. Texting seems like an approach to which many members will turn (or will expand their existing efforts on) to provide more support to students in lieu of in-person interactions.

Here’s the description of what the Find the Fit study did in this area: “A set of programmed, semi-customized text messages were sent to students about twice a month from the end of their junior year through the end of their senior year or, if they were in an Upward Bound project that offered a summer bridge program after high school graduation, through the end of that summer program. Messages were sent to the students via a texting platform where accounts had been set up for their Upward Bound projects. Messages were customized using information about where each student intended to apply to college and were programmed to originate from their project’s account. The messages included reminders about application and enrollment deadlines, Find the Fit materials students could use, and links to financial aid resources. If a student’s mobile phone number was not available, email messages were sent.”

The Find the Fit text messages are available in their entirety and represent a great place to start for adaptation this spring and into the summer. There’s also a handbook for college advisors that talks about all aspects of the Find the Fit intervention. Key sections to focus on include College Application Timeline Reminders (page 9) and Appendix 1: How to Implement a Text Messaging Program. There’s also an 11 minute YouTube video on implementing a text message program.

Although there are a number of text messaging platforms out there, Signal Vine is a two-way messaging platform with which NCAN has partnered in the past. The platform includes scheduled messages, automated replies, and personal responses from advisors. The Signal Vine site has a number of coronavirus-related resources available for free.

Finally, go way back to 2017 and 2018 when NCAN highlighted the work of NCAN member Degrees of Change, which has harnessed technology in a number of ways to students’ benefit. First, “Degrees of Change ‘Zaps’ Members to Easier Data Collection,” shows the process by which the organization coordinated a number of free and low-cost services to facilitate data collection from students and then subsequent data management. Some of those services include Mailchimp (for emails), Formsite (for surveys), Twilio (for texting), and Zapier (for connecting all of these together with a point and click interface). Members should be sure to look at the interaction workflow diagram and think about how it could be adopted to their contacts with students.

Second, “Degrees of Change Pilots Student ‘Pulse Check’ Survey” relates a conference proposal in which the program used a clever two-question survey to identify students’ point-in-time well-being and flag them for follow-up with an advisor. This is also a system that can be put together relatively easily using free or low-cost services.

Virtual advising has the potential to fill in supports and contacts that might not be feasible given current circumstances. NCAN will continue to be here to support members as they in turn guide students and families through the college-going process. In the coming week's we'll be holding a series of office hours sessions where NCAN staff will be available to field questions, comments, and concerns.