I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Here’s what I’m thinking about this week.

Lessons from an advising organization that built a digital strategy on the fly.

Personal, face-to-face connection is a hallmark of the College Advising Corps’ work. Its 800 just-out-of-college advisers are based at high schools throughout the country, where they build relationships with juniors and seniors and then help them apply for college admission and financial aid. Well, at least that was the model.

Thirteen months since going all virtual — and then shifting again to hybrid operations as schools began to reopen — the group’s founder, Nicole Hurd, now realizes just how naïve she was about the “digital strategy” she had once considered adequate. “It’s laughable,” she told me.

Hurd and I spoke a few weeks ago as she reflected on the Advising Corps and, as she put it, “what muscles we’re going to keep” now that the end of the pandemic is in sight. “It’s going to change us forever more,” she said. No doubt. And the Advising Corps isn’t alone. So I’m going to highlight four themes I drew from our conversation, hoping these lessons on making use of technology are useful to colleges and other organizations that advise students.

But first, some context on the Advising Corps, which began in 2005 and focuses on low-income and first-generation would-be college students. Serving more than a quarter-million students a year, the organization is run in collaboration with its 31 university partners (plus four more as of next fall: North Carolina A&T State University and the Universities of Connecticut, Washington, and California at Santa Cruz), which also cover a portion of the advisers’ salaries. Most of the advisers come from similar backgrounds to the students they guide, and, as I described in a newsletter a few years ago, that counseling experience often propels them into careers in education, especially in serving other first-generation students. In other words, the organization does vital work, and then its “alumni” pay it forward. Hurd wasn’t about to let a pandemic interrupt that.

As colleges began shutting down last year, she was trying to figure out what to do with the counselors working in 745 different high schools. Then, on March 12, what she described as “the scariest email of my career” hit her inbox. It was a note from one of her board members, Holden Thorp, who also happens to be the editor-in-chief of Science magazine (and would subsequently speak out on the risks he thought colleges were taking with Covid-19.)

Thorp’s advice was unequivocal: “Get them out of schools, now.” She did. And with that, a digital transformation began. Here are the takeaways I see.

Meet students where they are, virtually and physically. Once advisers couldn’t show up to school, they adapted to digital communications. But they didn’t just text students. Many also took the initiative to make videos and post them to their own TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube accounts, and soon discovered that advisees loved the chance to tune in to a supportive vibe at any hour. “They want it on YouTube, and they want to watch it at midnight,” said Hurd.

Some of that reminded me of how Peloton instructors use social media to build a following, and it seems I wasn’t far off the mark. People are seeking a similar kind of personal encouragement, said Hurd: “College advising, like exercising, is a vulnerable space.”

Notably, though, advisers tried to stay relatable and approachable to their students in person, too, including one who made a point of meeting advisees face to face at a local Chipotle and another, in Texas (it figures), who’s giving bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to every student who fills out a FAFSA.

It also helps to have at least a little head start tech-wise. The Advising Corps wasn’t a complete tech newbie. For the last five years, some of its advisers have been working with CollegePoint, a Bloomberg Philanthropies program that uses text, email, phone, and video-chat tools to help students navigate the application process. The group was also running its own small experiment in virtual advising.

That experience gave the organization the know-how and confidence to say yes when, in October, officials from the Common App asked for help reaching some of the 500,000 students it had identified as still needing to complete a FAFSA and who were not responding to text reminders from chatbots. The Advising Corps just began a similar collaboration with the state higher-ed system in Texas.

Since March 2020, said Hurd, our digital acceleration has increased “about 1,000 percent.”

Tech capabilities matter internally, too. Before Covid-19, the Advising Corps was casual in the way it communicated information and shared resources among its own staff. It had some remote-messaging tools (like Slack) and regular in-person assemblies and summits, but as Hurd told me, for a distributed organization, its approach was “really haphazard.” Now, even as counselors are getting back into schools, she’s pressing on an electronic “community network” to serve as a virtual library for important resources. It will be a spot to house and share policies and procedures, too.

“Things that were implicit need to be explicit,” she said, and having them in digital form will make that easier.

More digital capacity can expand an organization’s reach, but that doesn’t mean ditching fundamentals. The digital and hybrid models the Advising Corps developed over the past year let it provide services nationally, remotely, but Hurd still believes in the value of locally based counselors’ advising students in the communities where they live. “We always try to be hyper local,” she told me. “Context is everything.” That’s why she worries a little about the high-school Class of 2022, because they haven’t had the chance yet to work with advisers in person.

So while the Advising Corps is likely to continue to work on campaigns at the state and national level to assist students with the FAFSA, and while the organization will consider augmenting some local outreach with automated systems, it is not going to move away from its “inspirational and situation-based” approach. That, Hurd said, is still best conveyed in person.

Correction: In last week’s newsletter I referred to the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan as a $1.9-trillion proposal; it is a $2-trillion proposal.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

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