A routine flight from Chicago to Orange County, California should have taken only five hours and fifty minutes with a quick plane change in Denver. Oh, me of too much faith. This simple, straightforward flight ended up taking nine hours and included a stop in Las Vegas. There were a few delays due to high winds in Denver, but the four cancelled flights to Orange County were unexplainable. I could still fly into Orange County, provided I could get to any other city excluding Denver. A sense of frustration grows anytime travel plans are interrupted. Unexpected changes disrupt the anticipated schedule. Whether the travel is for business or pleasure, the sense of disappointment and inconvenience are the same.
This is not the first time I have encountered delayed or cancelled flights. Through each experience, I get a little bit better at seeing the inconvenience as an annoyance instead of a frustration. However, this is the first time that it struck me, this is what students experience with their higher education career all the time. They experience a series of delayed or cancelled flights. They have dreams and plans for their ultimate destination, but too often life circumstances creep up and they are forced to readjust. Sometimes the adjustments are part of the student's personal plan. Other times, the impact on the student is the result of unexpected decisions by the institution (e.g., cancelled courses, modified requirements, rising tuition costs, insufficient student services, or changes in faculty/staffing).
Higher education is hard enough to maneuver under the best of circumstances, but when you are one of the millions of working adults with numerous competing personal responsibilities, the idea of pursuing a degree can seem almost impossible. These are the students who have successfully earned credit, demonstrating that they can be successful in an academic environment, yet lack the support they need to navigate the unknowns within the system. Many of them do not have a gate agent waiting to reroute them so they can quickly get back on track like many gold and platinum frequent flyers, but they should. Institutions are struggling to report increasing completion and graduation rates when the reason is often quite clear. Students are being delayed and rerouted without the benefit of a system willing to understand and do what they can to clear the obstacles in their way.
Today, after a series of cancelled and delayed flights, I could have navigated the system, rebooked my ticket, and kept my fingers crossed that I ended up at my intended original destination. However, I was lucky. I had the help of several friendly gate agents who calmly listened, understood the issue, and provided me with the fastest route to get to Orange County. It was not my preferred route, but in the end, I arrived. For students, they should not have to rely on luck. All students should expect to receive the advantage of personalized assistance similar to those received by frequent fliers. Student success should not be based on luck, but involve intentional personalized service because research proves that is how students succeed.
There are millions of students from all backgrounds, experiences, and varying responsibilities who are looking for an opportunity to get back on track. As higher education institutions, we have an obligation to meet them where they are and provide a pathway forward. It may not be what they originally had planned, but it can still help them achieve their dreams. The next time we pick up a phone call or receive an email from an exasperated student, just remember that this may not have been their first choice. However, they are looking for someone to help them get to their final destination. We just need a little bit of empathy and remember that we too, received help along the way.
How does your institution help rerouted students find an alternate pathway to success?