Social distancing. Online-only courses. Virtual graduations. Thanks to COVID-19, the students who make up the Class of 2025 have survived a host of experiences that were once unimaginable — and they’ve done so with resilience. 

“The pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone — but especially for students transitioning to college,” said Christopher Smith, executive director of enrollment management and new student engagement at the Kansas State University Salina Aerospace and Technology Campus. “Many students have had to adjust to online learning, which can be isolating and make it difficult to stay motivated. And that’s why we’ve made a concerted effort to provide additional support for this group of students.” 

So, what does the Class of 2025 need to be successful as they move through the rest of their undergraduate careers? We recently chatted with Smith and three other higher education leaders about their experience and strategies for success. 

Christopher Smith, executive director of enrollment management and new student engagement, Kansas State University Salina Aerospace and Technology Campus

Strategies: We’ve implemented several initiatives to help first-year students transition smoothly to college life, including extended orientation programs, regular check-ins with faculty and staff, and increased social and academic engagement opportunities.  

One of the most important supports K-State Salina has put into place are student-centered services. We’ve hired additional staff to support their transition into college life and academic success. These include resources like academic advising, mental health counseling, and career planning. For example, we’ve created a dedicated website with information on topics like time management and study skills. We’ve also established a peer mentorship program, where upper-level students provide guidance and support to first-year students. 

In addition, we’ve developed a series of workshops on topics such as stress management and self-care. These initiatives have been designed to help Class of 2025 students navigate their first year of college and to set them up for success in the years to come. And while, to some degree, most colleges offer these services, first-year students often don't know how to access them or don't realize they need them. That's why we’re making a concerted effort to reach out to Class of 2025 students to ensure they're aware of the resources available to them.

Johnnie Johnson, vice president for enrollment management, Washington College

Strategies: We believed that students would have more uncertainty as to what academic pathways they might head toward, meaning they would need more time for those conversations. In an effort to not cut those conversations short — and to not overwhelm existing counselors and advisors, we hired more staff. This expanded the capacity of our existing advisors, while giving students access to more support. 

We also recognized the importance of professionalism when awarding financial aid packages. Since many families had a reduction in household income during the pandemic, we knew the topic of paying for a four-year education was a sensitive one. To prepare for in-depth conversations with families, we held internal staff training. After all, students and their families are our customers, and we need to be sensitive to their needs. The investment we’re asking families to make in our educational institutions is significant, and we have to treat it as such. In the end, treat them like you would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.

Boyd Bradshaw, vice president for enrollment management, Towson University

Strategies: Given all of the online learning, many of these students felt disconnected not only from their peers, but from their coursework and teachers. Not to mention, they lost important skills that they would normally receive in a face-to-face environment, like basic communication and conflict resolution skills. By anticipating this need for extra support, we were able to enhance our already comprehensive first-year program in a way that further benefited the Class of 2025.  

Our First-Year Experience Program (FYE) is one of the hallmarks of advising at Towson University. This program, which we’ve had for 25 years, assists high school graduates with the transition to college by providing a dedicated, specialist advisor. And, thanks to the program, our first-year students' persistence from the first term to the second is in the 90th percentile.  

Beginning last year, we decided to implement early academic intervention for all first-year students. This involved requesting progress reports for every FYE student during their fall semester. The outcomes of this effort were extremely positive — students who were identified as needing extra support worked more closely with their advisors, which resulted in higher GPAs and retention rates. 

We also established a Student Success Council as part of the Strategic Enrollment Management Framework. Our goal was to assess, strategize, and operationalize interventions to assist students as they move through their undergraduate careers. The council’s membership is a broad representation of faculty and staff across campus, and has been instrumental in bringing campus leadership together.

Christopher Maxwell, associate dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator, Harper College

Strategies: Since Harper College is a two-year community college, we haven’t technically brought in a Class of 2025 yet. But, we have welcomed new students throughout the pandemic. Overall, we’ve really tried to emphasize to new and current students the litany of resources available to assist with hardships stemming from the pandemic.    

Now that certain government funding is coming to an end, we’ve pushed donation campaigns to support emergency funding efforts for students who have expressed need. We’ve also been promoting our Hawks Care Resource Center (which connects students to campus and community resources) to students, so they’re aware of what is available.   

To promote public health and safety, we’ve shared information on where to get vaccinations, (either low-cost or free) for illnesses like flu and COVID. Vaccination opportunities have also been made available on campus, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Public Health. And Harper has established partnerships with several outlets for transportation assistance, namely with PACE transportation and Lyft. 

But, I’d say the biggest support Harper has given students is the assurance of safety. The college determined that the community is in a safe state to sustain an active, on-campus presence and will adjust to case-by-case situations related to COVID or other illnesses.