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Experience Management

Understanding student needs in challenging times

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck American higher education in March 2020, we all expected to be “back to normal” by the following academic year. Yet, across the country, students are experiencing college for yet another year impacted by the pandemic. While safety and learning remain paramount, institutions recognize the additional burden many students are carrying into their classes.

From basic and practical needs like food and housing to employment, childcare, and transportation to emotional well-being and mental health, educators have long recognized that a myriad of extracurricular factors can overwhelm even the most academically prepared students. However, student needs that existed prior to the pandemic are reaching a tipping point, and the extraordinary pressures of the pandemic are taking an increasing toll on students’ mental health and resilience.

According to recent NSSE research, more than half (53 percent) of first-year students report substantial increases in mental and emotional exhaustion. Of those, nearly 70 percent have "high expectations of academic difficulty."

The pandemic shifting far more instruction to online and hybrid classrooms presents additional challenges for some. As Matt Reed, author of IHE’s Confessions of a Community College Dean, said, “With so much more being done online, transportation actually became less of an issue. But home internet access became much more of an issue. And in some households, there are far more prospective laptop users at any given time than there are laptops to go around.”

Heeding these reports and studies like #realcollege During the Pandemic, colleges and universities are taking proactive steps to better understand incoming students’ individual experiences and specific needs from day one.

“How do we know how to help our students get to the finish line? The truth is we have to ask them, and ask them again, and again”, says Dr. Meredith Warner, District Director of Integrated Student Support at Maricopa Community Colleges.

“We have a responsibility to help students achieve their academic goals. This means ensuring students find the resources they need each term to help them progress. If we do not, it is not only the academic goals that we leave unfulfilled, but their hopes and dreams for a better economic future, one that allows each graduate and their families the ability to thrive and enhance their communities.”

Re-thinking the playbook

The Maricopa County Community College District in the Phoenix metro area is trying a new kind of student intake assessment. The survey asks students typical questions about their preparation for college and self-efficacy, whether they feel confident and college-ready, and whether they are comfortable asking questions in a public forum. However, the survey also includes questions about the kinds of support each student may need, including:

  • Finding a part-time or full-time job
  • Completing financial aid or scholarship paperwork
  • Gaining access to daily nutrition, transportation, childcare and housing

The assessment is designed to help the advisors and faculty guide students to the right support(s) at the right times. By proactively seeking information about their self-efficacy, their basic needs, and their academic support needs, we can align their individual academic plans to include direct introductions to those supports by way of advisors and program-specific faculty members.

How to get started with effective student needs surveys

Know what you’re measuring - Not all needs are created equal, but what once seemed a “want” may now be a need that, left unfulfilled, could derail today’s students.

  • Basic needs are those things required for survival: food, water, shelter, and safety. While not typically included as a basic need, employment or a source of income is closely related as basic needs typically require funds.
  • Relative needs depend on current circumstances and equity to the norm. For instance, providing students with a personal computer would have been a luxury when I went to college, with today’s demand for digital literacy and online and hybrid modalities here to stay, a computer and internet access have become important relative needs.
  • Perceived needs are based on what individuals feel and believe their needs to be. Perceived needs are by their nature subjective and personal. However, it’s important not to dismiss perceived needs as “just opinion.” Understanding students’ feelings and concerns is critical to improving their lived experience.

Understand the broader context - Although campus can feel like a world apart, institutions are not islands, but extensions of the broader community. Do students come from local communities or a geographical bounded area (state or region)? Are students attracted from across the country, or even around the globe? What are the prevailing economic conditions, education levels, and levels of basic needs such as food and housing insecurity in their hometowns? Understanding the diversity of backgrounds should inform the topics included in study of the campus community.

Understand the campus community - To set a campus community baseline, start with an anonymous survey sent to all students to understand how the campus community compares to the broader context and to identify “hot spots” of need across the entire student population. In the process of setting the campus baseline, there is value in knowing the variety and scope of needs regardless of whether the institution can address or alleviate any specific issue. This information should inform planning and resource allocations.

Begin with the end in mind - Determine how the information gathered in a student needs survey will be used and by whom. Choose survey question topics that match your institution’s ability to respond directly or with a referral to available assistance. When inviting individual students to share their needs, ask only the questions you are willing and able to address.

Connect with students - Use the insights gained through the campus baseline survey to arrive at a clear understanding of how you can help craft the student needs survey. Determine which students will receive the survey and when. For target resources to students most in need, institutions may choose to survey only incoming or new-to-college students, while others may select students based on the results of a campus community baseline survey or other demographics.

Connect the dots - Once students have self-identified as needing assistance, help students connect with services provided by the institution or by off-campus agencies and organizations. Creating a basic needs web presence provides a handy reference, not only for staff assigned to follow-up with survey respondents but for faculty and others who may learn of student needs through other venues.

Track your progress - Based on both the community baseline and the student needs survey, create a data dashboard to track progress and act on new insights.

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