“When you’re a college student, you have to learn to work the system to get help. And trust me, there is a system.”
This statement, made by a student to an audience of campus administrators and higher education advocates, generated a few uncomfortable chuckles from a group well aware of the system she was describing. Often referred to as “hidden curriculum,” the system is “the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn in school.” In other words, the social and cultural norms instructors don’t explicitly teach or discuss.
In the current pandemic environment of remote learning, the hidden curriculum remains a major hurdle, made even more difficult to navigate in a virtual environment. The exclusionary nature of hidden curriculum has no place in higher education if postsecondary education is expected to remain a public good and an engine of socioeconomic mobility.
Perhaps not surprising, the effects of hidden curriculum are most pervasive among first-generation college-goers, whose parents are unable to provide guidance due to their lack of experience in a college setting. The informal advising a student receives from a parent or guardian can be critical to instilling a sense of self-efficacy and building a strong attachment to a campus. This lack of insight can be detrimental to a student’s collegiate experience, which is apparent given that about one out of every three first-generation students will drop out of college within their first three years–more than twice the rate of students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree.
According to the recently-released #RealCollege in the Pandemic report, three in five students are experiencing basic needs insecurity due to COVID-19, most acutely in the areas of housing and food insecurity. Thanks to CARES Act funding, some campuses have been able to intervene, offering emergency financial aid. Yet, more than half of students surveyed said that they either didn’t know their campus offered emergency aid or were unsure of how to apply.
If equity is priority, we must dismantle the hidden curriculum so that more students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, can fully access the immediate resources and long-term benefits of their college experiences. To do this, we must:
1. Warm up (virtual) campus climates.
For students in crisis due to the pandemic, faculty and staff can and should connect students to emergency coaches for step-by-step guidance. When students feel connected and valued by their campuses, they are more likely to seek out help, which would break down the barriers to opportunities that the hidden curriculum has rendered intentionally vague or obscure.
2. Provide multi-channel and timely advising.
Pre-pandemic, 90 percent of first-generation college students were not expected to graduate on time. In addition, students from marginalized communities are more likely to pursue degrees that don’t align with their career aspirations. Underpinning both of these trends is a lack of proper advising.
One way to provide on-demand, timely advising is through the use of chatbots. Georgia State’s Pounce chatbot circumvents the bottleneck of scheduling in counseling appointments. Pounce interfaces with students directly on their smartphones or desktops, providing detailed responses with linked resources to students’ unique questions—and it works. Of student users, 80 percent rated the chatbot four out of five stars or higher, and 94 percent recommended it for incoming students.
As chatbots grow in popularity, data confirms their efficacy. A recent report on EdSights’ chatbot, which engaged more than 70,000 students, found an open rate of 98 percent for text messages as opposed to only 20 percent for emails. Personalization and accessibility are pivotal in an environment where students are separated from their physical campus communities.
3. Engage families.
Engaging families early in the postsecondary experience can help build a larger, more affirmative environment for students. One example of this type of engagement is Bright Prospect’s annual parent panel, where current Bright Prospect college students’ parents share their experiences with parents of high school seniors. Los Angeles Valley College also touts a two-generation success model through its Family Resource Center, which provides a range of supports and services to students with children. In both cases, postsecondary education is positioned as a collective family experience for first-generation students rather than something they would otherwise experience on their own.
Now more than ever, it is paramount that institutional leadership and faculty actively deconstruct hidden curriculum practices and processes. At a time of high uncertainty and extensive equity gaps, the last thing we need is a cultural mechanism that perpetuates the distance between the haves and have-nots.
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