The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the pressure adult learners face. Many are employed full time and caring for family members while pursuing their studies. Job instability, physical and mental health concerns, increased caretaking responsibilities, financial difficulty, and an uncertain career outlook are just a few of the challenges that have been exacerbated in the past year.
The virus’s grip on the nation’s health and economy is predicted to ease in the coming months, but the damage has been done. Women have left the workforce by the thousands, unemployment rates are recovering at a slower rate than expected, and opportunities for many people to reskill and upskill in pursuit of career changes and advancement are still out of reach.
In July 2020, WGU President Scott Pulsipher testified in a meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee that “this moment represents a once-in-a-lifetime reshaping of the landscape of education and work.” Here’s what WGU is doing to assist students as they continue to overcome the effects of the pandemic.
The most immediately impactful way to help is funding. At the beginning of the pandemic, WGU set aside $10 million in emergency aid for students experiencing financial and healthcare hardships due to COVID-19. These emergency aid funds were not just for tuition, but helped cover non-tuition essentials such as rent, groceries, internet access, and medical bills. We also added the Bright Futures scholarship to our existing scholarship portfolio, providing support to learners in need of higher education as part of their pandemic recovery plan.
In an effort to continue providing relief, WGU is disbursing recently-awarded Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund II (HEERF II) money to its students. The HEERF grant is part of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act from December 2020.
WGU has used an online, competency-based approach to degree programs since its inception nearly 25 years ago. Online options that are available anytime, competency-based courses that acknowledge the skills a student already possesses, and better access to technology all allow for more people to gain the skills and credentials they need to recover from the effects of the global pandemic.
The abrupt pivot to remote work and learning has been somewhat difficult for institutions that depend on traditional, in-person methods. But all learners, especially working learners, need access to education programs that acknowledge previous experience and meld with their existing responsibilities. This is why WGU is sharing tips for how to implement CBE programs at other institutions.
More than anything, the pandemic has highlighted the need for support systems. Creating a community of care for students is essential to their success throughout this difficult time. Though each WGU student has a mentor to guide them through their education journey, many WGU students needed a tighter network of support to help them persist in their studies.
One initiative that has contributed to this support network is WGU’s Environmental Barriers Program (EVB), which was established back in 2018. The EVB Program was created to lessen the negative impact of natural disasters and other emergent events on the university’s students, all of whom complete their courses online. With the arrival of novel coronavirus in the United States, WGU students in all 50 states were impacted in many ways, from employment and housing insecurity to difficult family and homeschooling situations. It was the EVB Team’s largest-scale event to date, and they quickly developed a COVID-19 task force to provide university-wide support for the nearly 90,000 students impacted.
The EVB program is a model for any institution that seeks to create a community of care. More information on EVB and how to implement similar programs is available through this webinar from WGU Academic Engagement.