Virtual Student Services Playbook for 2020–2021

How to deliver high-quality campus support services at any distance

Fall 2020: The Most Uncertain Term

To be (on campus), or not to be, that is the question.

In no uncertain terms, fall 2020 may be the most uncertain term ever. As colleges and universities decide how and when to safely reopen in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many students still don’t know if they’ll be learning in-person or online.

How Institutions Plan to Reopen

While the vast majority are now planning for in-person instruction, most are also developing contingency plans for ongoing campus shutdowns—and preparing for a shift to fully virtual campuses.

According to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, no institution can predict with certainty when in-person classes will resume because “politicians and public-health officials—not college presidents—are going to determine when colleges are allowed to open.”

In fact, higher education will likely take longer than most industries to reopen because of the challenges involved in enforcing social distancing on college campuses.

Politicians and public-health officials—not college presidents—are going to determine when colleges are allowed to open.

Here’s a snapshot from June 5 showing how nearly 900 U.S. institutions plan to reopen next fall (updated daily by The Chronicle of Higher Education):

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Give Students a Virtual Lifeline

Coronavirus may be the first global crisis for higher ed, but it’s not the first time U.S. campuses have weathered shutdowns. Studying the impact of natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and California’s Camp Fire in 2018, The Hechinger Report found that colleges and universities affected “became lifelines for students and for their larger communities after the disasters.” Being a lifeline means maintaining—and even increasing—access to student support services. In the time of coronavirus, it also means offering services online.

In this ebook, we explain why virtual student services are critical, not just for campus preparedness in 2020, but to help students succeed in the best of times.

Why Virtual Student Services Are a Prerequisite for Virtual Learning

Students need and expect online support.

Last spring, before coronavirus forced colleges and universities online, the Connected Student Report revealed that digital-age students expect more online support than schools provide.

Among students surveyed, 39% expect 1:1 online advising, 47% expect access to an online chat service, and 51% expect online application support. Here’s a breakdown of the online support students expect versus what schools actually provide:

Online Support:
Expectations Vs. Reality

While higher education has embraced online learning—and one-third of students were taking at least one online course before most classes went remote last March—some institutions have been slower to roll out virtual student services.

As a result, their coronavirus response plans have relied on short-term solutions like free video conferencing apps (not secure) or email and telephone support (not student-friendly). Whether schools reopen for in-person instruction or offer a fully online curriculum next fall, most students need and expect online support.

Eliminate Barriers to Student Success

For online and nontraditional students who are more likely to work full time or care for dependents, making a special trip to campus to meet with academic or student support staff can be a barrier to getting the help they need. The same is true for students with disabilities.

A Profile of Today’s College Students

According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, nearly half of all students are now categorized as nontraditional because 45% are age 22 or older, 45% live off campus but not with parents, 28% are parents themselves, 26% work full time, and 14% take online classes only. The chart at left shows a complete profile of today’s college students.

When students from any demographic group drop out, it’s often because of life challenges rather than academic challenges. By offering virtual support services, schools can do more to help students succeed simply by being accessible online.

Make a Human Connection With Virtual Support Services

Many college students, especially ethnic minorities and first-generation students, report feeling isolated and disconnected. These feelings may be exacerbated by online learning. A recent academic study found that a greater sense of belonging “predicts better persistence, engagement, and mental health.”

Here’s how student services and instructional departments can make a human connection with students by going virtual:

Admissions & Enrollment

For new students who can’t visit campus (for economic reasons or because of disabilities), having the option to chat online, meet virtually with an admissions counselor, or attend virtual orientation helps increase access and equity. It also helps overwhelmed admissions departments serve more students in less time.

Financial Aid

Financial aid applications are complicated and stressful. That’s why email and telephone support won’t suffice. Using a video conferencing system, financial aid counselors can guide students through every step of the process. And, with a robust virtual services platform, students will have the ability to complete, sign, and submit forms digitally during their appointment.

Academic Advising

In addition to helping students meet their academic, personal, and professional goals, academic advisors serve as guides to complex campus systems. More importantly, they foster a meaningful connection to the institution. Through online support services, advisors give students the convenience and flexibility they need to stay connected, engaged, and on track to graduate.


When students are struggling and need help, they can’t cope with added barriers. By offering tutoring services online—and making them more accessible through self-scheduling, instant messaging, and live meetings via video conferencing—students are more likely to get help when they need it (and before it’s too late). By leveraging features such as a shared whiteboard and document library, tutors can make sessions more interactive and engaging.

Faculty Office Hours

Professors play a crucial role in guiding students academically and socially. But for online learners, nontraditional students, and students with disabilities, faculty office hours can’t be limited to a physical office. Connecting virtually allows professors to meet students where they are without losing the ability to connect face to face. Online self-scheduling also eliminates administrative burdens for busy faculty.

Mental Health Counseling

As mentioned above, many students who drop out do so because of life challenges. Providing the option to meet with a counselor online increases access to mental health services by decreasing barriers. It also gives counselors additional tools such as video conferencing with closed captioning, online chat for nonverbal communication, customizable intake forms, and a virtual lobby to protect student privacy.


When students are struggling and need help, they can’t cope with added barriers. By offering tutoring services online—and making them more accessible through self-scheduling, instant messaging, and live meetings via video conferencing—students are more likely to get help when they need it (and before it’s too late). By leveraging features such as a shared whiteboard and document library, tutors can make sessions more interactive and engaging.

Critical for Fall 2020: Prepare to Deliver Campus Health Services Online

In their guidelines for reopening, the American College Health Association recommends giving students the option to schedule telemedicine appointments with campus healthcare providers. That includes appointments for telemental health services to support the growing number of students facing mental health concerns resulting from the pandemic.

Whether synchronous or asynchronous, the technology schools implement to deliver these services must be FERPA and HIPAA compliant to protect the privacy and security of students in their dual role as patients.

Must-Have Features & Functionality for a Virtual Student Services Platform

An enterprise platform modernizes and streamlines student services.

Just as learning management systems facilitate anytime, anywhere access to distance education, a virtual student services platform helps extend student support beyond campus.

According to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (or NASPA), “Institutions are investing in technology tools that have the potential—when purchased and implemented wisely—to transform academic advising and student success.” The Deloitte Center for Higher Education Excellence reports that “colleges and universities are adopting a growing number of digitally-enabled student services, in addition to traditional in-person services offered on campus.”

Effective virtual support services require technology that mirrors in-person workflows with tools designed to increase student engagement, as well as the effectiveness of staff and faculty. When you evaluate virtual platforms, look for these features first:

ADA, FERPA, & HIPAA Compliance

If your virtual student services platform doesn’t work for students of all abilities, then it doesn’t work. To verify accessibility, check for closed captioning and compatibility with major screen and text-to-speech readers. FERPA and HIPAA compliance are also critical to protect the privacy and security of student information.

Built-In Collaboration Tools

A platform designed for higher education will come with built-in collaboration tools such as an integrated document library (and/or Google Docs integration), a shared whiteboard, and the ability to collect digital signatures within the interface. This helps make advising and tutoring sessions more interactive, and gives counselors in admissions and financial aid the ability to provide real-time application support.

Virtual Meetings / Video Conferencing

Going virtual doesn’t have to mean sacrificing real-time, face-to-face interactions. With reliable, high-quality video and audio, you can host and record synchronous virtual meetings for 1:1 or group sessions. To help students avoid technical difficulties, your virtual platform should be cloud and browser-based, which eliminates the need to download software.

Online Appointment Scheduling

When you make it easier for students to connect, they’re more likely to reach out. Online appointment scheduling enables entire departments to create shared calendars for office hours and event registration (such as virtual orientation or information sessions). Students can then see the availability of individual staff on your website, self-schedule appointments or events at their convenience, and automatically receive a confirmation email with the date, time, and instructions about where or how to meet. This saves frustration for students and valuable time for staff.

Instant Messaging

Connecting with students effectively means providing the anytime, anywhere access they expect. With instant messaging, students can reach out from their smartphones and you can quickly respond. The best systems for online chat will include a virtual contact card that shows when you’re available and gives students the option to virtually “knock on your door” or send an offline message. It will also save a transcript of each chat with reason codes, and enable staff to pass the student on to other support staff for follow up.

Virtual Lobby

To simulate the experience of an on-campus student services office (minus the long lines), you can post times for open office hours and allow students to drop in online. With an integrated virtual lobby, you can see how many students are waiting and how long they’ve been waiting. Every counselor in your group should be able to pull students from your shared lobby into a virtual meeting or start a private chat.

LMS, SIS, & Calendar Integrations

No enterprise campus system or edtech platform should be an island. Technology for virtual student services should integrate seamlessly with your SIS and LMS to accurately push/pull data in real time. To enable online appointment scheduling, it should also integrate and sync instantly with calendar systems such as Google, Microsoft Office 365, Outlook, and Exchange.

Data & Analytics for Reporting

Through integrations with other campus systems—and data aggregated in-platform from student polls, surveys, intake forms, and more—your virtual student services platform should provide reports to help measure and improve student outcomes and the quality of services delivered.

The Way Forward Is Virtual

Keep students engaged and enrolled with online support services.

In an uncertain academic year like 2020–2021, virtual support services give incoming students (and their parents) additional ways to reach out with questions. They also give returning students a way to stay connected with advisors, counselors, tutors, and professors. And, critical for institutional leadership, they give deans and directors tools to increase student engagement and retention.

Some in higher ed believe the current crisis is an opportunity to reimagine programs and services with a focus on making them more “affordable, accessible, equitable, resilient, and sustainable.”

Until your school can get back to business as usual, your business in 2020 is to reimagine academic and student support services for the digital age, implementing systems that allow you to fulfill your mission from any distance. The digital foundation you put in place now will determine your success in the next year and the next decade.

About ConexED

ConexED is an interactive platform for virtual student services and instruction. It provides ADA, FERPA, and HIPAA compliant software for scheduling, meeting, messaging, collaborating, and reporting. It gives campus departments—from admissions to career services and every touch point in between—tools to deliver high-quality student services for the digital age. Learn more about our user-friendly, cloud-based solution at

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