Supporting Postsecondary Transitions During COVID-19: Practical Resources and Considerations

by Stephanie Suarez, SRI International and Jill Marcus, Education Development Center
June 9, 2020

(Repost of a June 5, 2020 post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the college application, financial aid, and decision-making processes for students and families seeking a higher education. K–12 and higher education practitioners now have an opportunity to innovate how to support students through what is currently uncharted territory. On May 14 REL AP staff and college access experts came together to discuss how school counselors, school leaders, teachers, and other education staff can provide supports to students who are graduating high school and plan to attend a postsecondary institution. Prior to and during the discussion, REL AP staff solicited topics of interest and questions from practitioners. Below are some questions our presenters addressed related to the greatest areas of concern: financial aid, social-emotional supports, and how to reach and support students and families during the pandemic.

Financial aid

Are students completing the FAFSA this year, and how can we support them to complete their applications? MorraLee Keller, director of technical assistance, and Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation from the National College Attainment Network shared FAFSA completion challenges, which have been exacerbated this year. Students’ completion of the FAFSA is a gateway to accessing federal, state, and institutional aid, so it is important to encourage all students to file. Data show that compared to last year, there is a precipitous decline in FAFSA completions both for first year and renewing applicants (DeBaun, 2019, slide 21). As DeBaun explained,

Tens of thousands fewer high school seniors completed the FAFSA at this point compared to last year. The completion deficit for Title I eligible high schools is much larger than that of the deficit for non-Title I eligible high schools. Overall, we still need about 400,000 seniors across the country to complete the FAFSA to get to last year’s completion rate, and a lot of those students are going to need help to complete the FAFSA.

Below are some tips for supporting students and families to complete the FAFSA and to build their understanding of the financial aid process:

  • Provide individualized support to students and families.
  • In addition to technical assistance, offer students moral support to complete the FAFSA.
  • Arrange supports for students without Internet access and/or a printer at home. These supports should be arranged through the phone and/or by contacting the college financial aid office for advice. Without these resources, students will have difficulty signing a FAFSA application, whether through a Federal Student Aid Identification (FSAID) or printed signature page.
  • Help students understand their financial award letters so they can make informed decisions based on the net price of each college to which they have been admitted.
  • Help students understand institutions’ financial aid award appeal processes if students need to change their financial information on record due to a job loss in the family related to the pandemic or any other extenuating circumstance.
  • For tools to help implement some of these strategies, see the Online Supports for Postsecondary Transitions table.

Social-emotional supports

How can practitioners provide emotional support for students who are anxious, disconnected, and/or frustrated? Sara Woodruff, director of research at the College Transition Collaborative (CTC) shared strategies to address the social-emotional well-being of students, which can help mitigate “summer melt”—a phenomenon that has previously resulted in between 10% and 40% of admitted students to not show up to college campuses in the fall.1 School closures and other COVID-19 conditions are now likely to exacerbate the problem. Below are some tips for counselors working with students to elevate/improve emotional supports:

  • Find ways to convey compassion and understanding for students’ concerns and challenges.
  • Reassure students that these are highly unusual times, but that college leadership, staff, instructors, and students are learning how to handle it together.
  • Validate and address students’ and families’ concerns and questions as accurately and quickly as possible based on available information, but acknowledge that the situation and related solutions are changing quickly.
  • To support students with disabilities, reach out to institutions where students were admitted to learn about how specific disability accommodations will be implemented online and work with the institution to develop a plan for support.

Connecting with students and families

How can you reach students and families now that face-to-face meetings are not possible, particularly those with limited access to technology? Haden Parrish, college adviser, and Joy Pugh, director of the Virginia College Advising Corps offered numerous suggestions for reaching all students and families through innovative approaches. Broad outreach messages have been less effective as of late, and Pugh recommends individualized outreach efforts instead. Ideal times to contact students and families may vary widely, and practitioners may want to think flexibly, while still prioritizing work-life balance. Below are some tips from the field for getting in touch with students and families:

  • Use social media targeted specifically for the intended audience: Facebook for parents and Instagram and TikTok for students. Messages need to be frequent, creative, and consistent to be effective.
  • Collect as much data as possible about students, such as alternative email addresses, phone numbers, and where they are in the FAFSA and enrollment processes.
  • Text students one-on-one, if appropriate.
  • Make phone calls — which may be more effective now that many people are at home.
  • Use Robo calls — which may be the most effective way to communicate, as students are eagerly anticipating updates from their schools.
  • Create a YouTube channel where advisors and students provide helpful information that is accessible for students without a stable internet connection, since videos can be downloaded when Internet is available and viewed later with more clarity on slower connections.

The college-going process is rapidly evolving, and students, families, and practitioners need to stay up-to-date on the latest resources and information. College admission policies and deadlines are changing, and students are facing new experiences that may require additional supports. The table below includes resources, many of which were shared during the virtual chat, to help address common questions and concerns.

Online Supports for Postsecondary Transitions

Financial Aid Swift Student Financial Aid Appeal Letter High school and college students This free tool provides templates to create a financial aid appeal letter curated to a student’s specific situation. The tool also walks students through the process of submitting this letter to colleges and universities.
Financial Aid uAspire Support Resources for All High school students, counselors, and parents This document provides updates, resources, and information related to financial aid for college during COVID-19.
Socio-Emotional Supports Social Belonging Intervention K–12 and postsecondary counselors This tool provides an overview of how a students’ mindset and psychological interpretation can influence their response to adversity.
Enrollment NACAC Enrollment Deposit Fee Waiver First-time college students experiencing financial hardship First-time college students can submit this new NACAC enrollment deposit waiver for colleges and universities to take into consideration.
Enrollment NACAC College Admissions Status Update 2.0 High school students and counselors This site provides COVID-19 updates on changes in college admission policies related to deposit deadlines, campus openings, and so much more.
Enrollment Parchment Send Transcripts High school counselors From now until June 30, 2020, high school counselors can create a free “send account” to send transcripts electronically to colleges and universities.
Admissions Up Next text message subscription High school seniors This text messaging subscription helps seniors plan for college through guided prompts related to finding a college, applying to college, accessing financial aid, and more.
Admissions NACAC Request for Admission Application Fee Waiver Form High school seniors experiencing financial hardship High school seniors can submit this NACAC application fee waiver for colleges and universities to take into consideration.
Admissions NACAC Request for Transfer Admission Application Fee Waiver Form Transfer students experiencing financial hardship Transfer students can submit this NACAC application fee waiver for colleges and universities to take into consideration.
Admissions SAT & PSAT Testing Updates High school students and counselors List of updates on testing administrations and FAQs related to COVID-19.
Admissions AP Testing Updates High school students, teachers, and counselors List of updates on testing administrations and FAQs related to COVID-19.
Admissions ACT Testing Updates High school students and counselors List of updates on testing administrations and FAQs related to COVID-19.
Admissions COVID-19 Question on 2020-2021 Common App High school juniors and counselors This blog provides guidance for students and counselors on this new optional admissions question that will allow students to explain how the pandemic impacted them.
Admissions You Visit Virtual College Tours Prospective college students This site allows users to virtually explore 600+ college campuses for free using 360 views or virtual reality headsets.
Additional Supports NCAN’s Roundup of COVID-19 Resources K–12 and postsecondary students, parents, and practitioners This site provides external articles, lists, and practical recommendations for supporting students during COVID.

(Note: This list of resources was last updated on May 27, 2020.)

Recent REL research

While the resources shared above and during the May 14 webinar are particularly geared toward the COVID era, for more information related to the topic of supporting students in postsecondary transitions in general, please consider visiting the following REL resources:

For more information and to access the materials from this webinar, including the recording, check out the event page.


1 Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2014). A trickle or a torrent? Understanding the extent of summer “melt” among college-intending high school graduates. Social Science Quarterly, 95(1), 202–220.