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Emergency Coaching Helps Students Weather Uncertainty

September 16, 2020

by Angela Sanchez, Program Officer, College Success

In the thick of the pandemic, prevailing pain points for students have been made even more apparent—food insecurity, lack of safe and stable housing, and poor access to digital tools. These stressors are most keenly felt by students from backgrounds that the higher education system has historically marginalized, including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, student parents, older students (age 25+), and students who are the first in their families to pursue a college degree.

“I’m not sure my savings will allow them both to survive this quarantine and still keep the business,” Haverford college senior Tatiana Lathion wrote to her professor regarding her parents’ food truck.  The stay-at-home orders meant less foot traffic and fewer customers for the family’s primary source of income. Tatiana wrestled with the need to find work to support her family and protecting her time to engage and complete online coursework.

Tatiana’s challenges are underscored by a growing body of research. In a recent report, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 3 out of 5 students experienced gaps in basic needs, particularly food or housing insecurity. Particularly concerning, the report found that many students were not aware that they were eligible for public benefits supports. A separate report from Ithaka S+R uncovered a similar finding, noting that students who expressed the greatest concerns for their basic needs were less likely to know where to go to find emergency aid resources.

Students’ persistence and personal well-being should not be subject to harm based on a lack of communication or the failure to receive a timely intervention. Enter emergency coaching. Emergency coaching refers to any means, from texting to calling to email and messaging, which connects a student to a live case manager who will provide swift, immediate support to navigate a specific situation. Students can also follow-up with the same case manager as their situation develops.

In addition to committing over $1.5 million for emergency aid, ECMC Foundation made a number of grants this past spring in response to COVID-19, including investments in Rise Education Fund (Rise) and InsideTrack to provide emergency coaching.

Rise is a national, student-led policy advocacy organization focused on college affordability and students’ basic needs. In direct response to COVID-19, Rise launched the Navigator Network in mid-March to provide one-on-one virtual case management. Case managers are college and graduate students from across the country who help their peers secure emergency financial aid, apply for public benefits, and connect with local resources.

“Awareness of resources is not enough, students need to have a relationship with someone who is walking them through the process,” said Max Lubin, founder and CEO of Rise.

Rise case manager Katie Jones, a second-year master’s student in social work at Michigan State University, reported working with a student named Candice, who is a single mother of seven. While Candice was unemployed and deemed ineligible for benefits, she had fallen behind on rent. “I provided information on rental assistance in DuPage County, Illinois, where she lives, and Housing Counselors who can help Illinois residents understand their options if they are falling behind on rent,” said Jones. “I also told her about the eviction moratorium in Illinois...This was enough to put Candice's mind at ease since she was going back to work soon.”

The staggering need of the pandemic keeps the team busy—the Navigator Network receives 1,000 new cases per month.

InsideTrack, an affiliate of the Strada Education Network, took an institution-focused approach. With a grant from ECMC Foundation and match from Strada, InsideTrack will provide both a team of emergency coaches and technical assistance to a cohort of campuses with the goal that these will become sustained practices at the institutions.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the basic needs, mental health and other issues that often prevent students from completing, particularly among historically underrepresented student populations,” said Kai Drekmeier, founder and chief development officer at InsideTrack. “This initiative is about rapidly expanding the availability of responsive, holistic student support and building the long-term capacity of institutions to meet the evolving needs of their students.”

InsideTrack’s Emergency Coaching Network aims to negate the impact of crisis experiences on students’ academic journeys as much as possible. Beyond helping students negotiate public benefits and campus resources to stabilize their situations, emergency coaches will also work with students to create academic persistence plans, ensuring that students are able to make continued progress toward degree completion even after their emergencies have subsided.

Providing emergency coaching is one way to invest people power into students whose college persistence could be easily derailed.  As we turn to technology to help us work and learn remotely, human connection remains critical for the many students striving to achieve long-term success.

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