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College in the fall? 

A college campus.

A college campus. Credit: iStock

As New York continues to reopen and its colleges and universities plan for resuming instruction in the fall, college leaders are grappling with a new worry: Will our students come back?

I believe they will.

I'm an optimist because I know our region has been here before: This century, it has been buffeted by the devastation of 9/11, the inundation after Hurricane Sandy, and the collapse caused by the Great Recession.

Each time, we worried that some of our students wouldn’t return — especially our most vulnerable students, those from low-income families or the first in their families to attend college. We were afraid that they thought they couldn’t afford school, that they worried about their safety, or simply that they thought other things were more important in a time of great disruption.

And each time, they returned. Each time, we’ve gotten them back on track with their education. We know how to do it, and we know what’s at stake if they can’t return.

We’ve long known that a college education, especially for vulnerable students, can transform lives. Americans with a college degree will earn 84% more in their lives than those who attained only a high school diploma, according to research from Georgetown University.

Nowhere has this employment divide been more apparent than during the current pandemic. Today, Americans with a college degree are more likely to be able to work remotely from home and more likely to have jobs that can continue despite lockdown measures. The unemployment rate among those with only a high school diploma shot up to 17% last month; for those with a bachelor’s or higher degree, it’s less than half that, at 8.2%.

Keeping students engaged with their education is good for our students, and it’s good for our society, and our economy, which need these well-educated workers. So how do we do that? At Pace, we’ve learned that outreach matters.

After 9/11, Pace’s proximity to Ground Zero cut off our university phones and email. Faculty and staff worked hard to compile and expand lists of personal contact information for students and stayed in touch with them. The phone calls, and similar ones after Sandy, enabled us to help keep students aware of developments on campus and, equally important, to talk to them about what was going on in their lives.

Through these crises, we’ve seen the benefits of proactive advising. That means not waiting for students to come to us with problems — because some never will, and instead will just drift away — but instead reaching out to see what they need and how we can help. It worked after Sandy, when our fall semester-to-spring semester student retention actually edged up after the hurricane, compared to the previous year.  It can work again.

It's lesson that applies across the board. We can all reach out to friends and neighbors, those in families or alone, to see what they need. Asking, “How can I help?” goes a long way for a person in need and can truly make a difference.

Marvin Krislov is the president of Pace University.