Jan 28 2021

Which CARES Act-Funded Technologies Best Support Underserved Remote Learners?

Here’s a look at how colleges and universities have spent the previous round of relief funds.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on all populations in higher ed, but it’s been especially hard on low-income students. College students with family incomes at or below the federal poverty level tend to experience more difficulties during distance learning. All the while, the challenges they faced before the pandemic— such as a lack of child care and balancing coursework with full-time employment — have not changed.

In California, 14 percent of college students from low-income households report not having internet access at home. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, students from families earning less than $75,000 per year nationwide are more than twice as likely as their affluent peers to cancel college plans this year.

“Many of our students have lost their jobs,” says Lawrence Bradford, vice president for academic affairs at Los Angeles Southwest College in California. “They’ve had to figure out how they’re going to keep the lights on. They’ve had to find ways to afford to buy food.”

As higher education receives an additional $21.2 billion in emergency relief funds, here’s a look at how some have spent previous funding, and which technologies they found best supported underserved remote learners.

How Colleges Used Their CARES Act Funds

When LASW joined other schools in the Los Angeles Community College District in moving to online instruction last spring, the institution saw an immediate drop in enrollment. Part of the decline was due to the state chancellor’s office for community colleges mandating that California community colleges refund student fees and allow excused withdrawals due to “extraordinary conditions.” LASW and the LACCD did so, Bradford notes, but they are also doing everything they can to support the students who want to stay.

“We didn’t miss a beat,” he says, of the district’s initial response to the pandemic. CARES Act funds provided immediate assistance to students who needed emergency help with food, housing and other expenses, while initiatives like the district’s free tuition program distributed nearly 40,000 Chromebooks and Surface Laptop Go devices between March and the start of the fall semester. The college gave half of the devices to students and kept half as loaners.

Similarly, LACCD partnered with a major internet service provider to secure free broadband and home Wi-Fi access for any student who needed it. Free public Wi-Fi hotspots were also established on college campuses throughout the county.

MORE ON EDTECH: See how schools are promoting online access with hotspots, laptops and planning.

Bradford says the district also created an official “status and information” website that links to a range of COVID-19-related resources, including free services and additional funding.

“A huge part of this has been reaching out to our students and asking them, ‘What are your barriers? What are you experiencing right now?’” Bradford notes. “When we know what they’re going through and what they need, we do what we can to help.”

LASW and LACCD may be at the forefront of the push to ensure low-income students have access to remote learning, but they’re far from alone in these ongoing efforts. Colleges across the country have leveraged CARES Act funding after it was dispersed last spring, and many went on to launch innovative aid programs.

At the University of Michigan, for example, the information and technology services team created a laptop loaner program called Sites @ Home for students who couldn’t afford to purchase computers themselves. Meanwhile, the University of Arizona bolstered its network of Wi-Fi hotspots to enable drive-up connectivity at dozens of locations.

Alternative Ways to Get Funding For Higher Education

Just before the pandemic, the University of Texas at Austin created UT for Me. The program provides individualized support — such as financial aid coaching and no-cost textbooks and laptops — to all students eligible for the Pell Grant. The program was created through a partnership between the university and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

“It turned out last year was the perfect time to launch something like this,” says UT for Me program director KJ Harris. Program administrators initially aimed to serve around 1,800 students in 2020. “It may or may not have been because of COVID,” she says, “but we wound up working with around 2,400 students.”

READ MORE: Learn how to improve your remote learning strategy.

Officially known as “UT for Me — Powered by Dell Scholars,” the program was made possible by a $100 million, 10-year commitment from the foundation. First-year Pell Grant recipients with the highest financial need receive $20,000 scholarships that they can apply to any college expenses. Low-income students who are Texas residents, Harris says, are also often eligible for additional aid through the university’s Texas Advance Commitment program, which covers all tuition and fees for students in families earning $65,000 or less per year.

Providing One-on-One Support for Remote Learners

When the pandemic forced UT Austin to transition to remote learning, UT for Me went entirely online too, Harris notes. Her team uses a technology developed by Michael and Susan Dell Foundation scholars called GradSnapp, which allows them to work with students one-on-one even when they’re not in the same room.

“It’s an online case management tool that has most of the things we need built in,” she says. For example, the university can email or text students information about the services offered. It also includes personalized dashboards that help students stay on track to graduate.

Harris says the students can keep their laptops throughout their entire education at UT Austin. Most are Dell computers, and many are programmed to match the demands of specific academic programs. “Every laptop meets the student’s needs,” she says. “If you’re a design student and you need a certain program, we make sure you get it.” The devices also come with extended warranties. Students have access to free tech support as long as they’re enrolled at the university.

UT Austin’s UT for Me is the first partnership of its kind with the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, Harris says, but she believes the model — and other programs like it — will eventually be implemented at other schools within the University of Texas system. “It’s been incredibly helpful to our students, especially now, when so many of them need it. I think it would have a similar impact on other campuses as well,” she says.

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