Beyond the Surface: Moving Toward a Holistic View of Students

Seeing and meeting students’ basic life needs in creative ways


During a check-in conversation about resilience last fall, one Frontier Set member said he felt his university was in the midst of a fundamental shift from seeing itself as simply an educational institution to a comprehensive social services organization. This sentiment is shared, to varying degrees, across the Frontier Set. As these colleges, universities, and state systems have reoriented around a persistent focus on students of color and their success, more administrators, faculty, and staff have come to see their students more holistically, moving beyond degree selection, grades, and attendance to see students as parents, employees, friends, and family members—people who have struggles, commitments, and dreams that both compete with and fuel their academic journeys. In part this is simply because today’s students are so diverse: nearly 40 percent are over 25, more than 25 percent have children, and the majority are employed while they go to school.

COVID-19 pushed this view even further, particularly as the pandemic exacerbated existing racial inequities.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) reflected that “the pandemic itself was a catalyst in that it humanized the students and allowed people on campuses to see outside the deficit mindset faculty and staff sometimes perceive students through and into their real lives and the circumstances that are truly present for the students of today.” In this way, the pandemic helped build empathy: student struggles increased, everyone (faculty and staff included) was struggling, and it was natural to continue to extend the role of the university, from educator to open-armed supporter of students through trying times. Many Frontier Set institutions saw calls from students to advising, financial aid, and support centers skyrocket, and some, such as Georgia State University, mitigated long wait times by implementing virtual appointment services that streamlined call center communications, as well as proactive outreach campaigns. Georgia State also created an online one-stop-shop application to help students request and receive immediate financial support for food, rent, childcare, and other basic needs.

Many Frontier Set institutions disbursed CARES Act funding to students as emergency aid, at times removing or simplifying the usual application process. They saw the need was urgent: students couldn’t attend class if they were facing immediate housing or food insecurity. Outreach also played a key role—calling campaigns that encompassed all students, first-time students, or other sub-groups, aimed to make sure students knew what was available to them, and staff knew what students actually needed, so they could tailor offerings to match. San Jacinto College called more than 60,000 students across multiple terms, which resulted in students feeling cared for; as 2020 drew to a close and the calls continued, many students picked up their call just to let the college know they had what they needed to succeed.

Thoughtful framing helped staff understand how the year’s unique struggles compounded the usual student challenges.

Portland State University reflected on advice from a Frontier Set peer, who proposed a simple question regarding the challenges first-time students face: “Is it college, or is it COVID?” This framing helped them parse out the longstanding barriers and the new COVID-related roadblocks and build compassion for how navigating through a new environment is more challenging than ever. At a January 2021 meeting focused on learnings from the pandemic, some representatives from Frontier Set institutions noted seeing into students’ homes via video calls and meetings spurred more of that understanding and, at times, more authentic connection as faculty and staff saw into students’ lives, and vice versa. The Historically Black College and University (HBCU) intermediary reflected how it was data plus “intuitive conversations and intentional relationship-building with students” that allowed the HBCU member institutions to meet their students’ needs, regardless of barriers and challenges brought in 2020.

Students have always needed to be supported to succeed, and the trials of 2020 asked institutions to deepen and broaden that support. Frontier Set members rose to the challenge and saw their efforts bear fruit as students persisted across the year and, together with faculty and staff, they found opportunities to connect, share, and learn.