After A Year Of Uncertainty, College Presidents Reflect On COVID-19’s Impact

People in higher education may be tired of the word “pivot” by now, but that’s undoubtedly what colleges and universities across the country have been doing so much since the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the education field.

In a new report, the New America Research Center has published interviews with 24 presidents and administrators from colleges and universities, as they reflect on how the pandemic is affecting nearly every aspect of higher education.

We’ve collected some highlights from the results.

Joining takes a hit

While it is not surprising that study participants – whose responses were anonymous – said their enrollment declined during the pandemic, many add that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the problem rather than created it. Some colleges and universities say their technology and healthcare programs have remained flat or have seen enrollment rates rise. Technical training programmes, which are difficult to translate online, have reportedly been hit the hardest by low enrollment rates as institutions have been forced to reduce in-person class sizes.

Institutions have seen students struggle for a wide variety of reasons, from Internet access to loss of income. Leaders cited in the report also highlighted the pressures of school closures on their caregivers, with one describing the pressure on single mothers as a “disaster”. Another says he saw a new student drop out because the student was the only member of his family who could find a job – 50 hours a week at an Amazon warehouse.

A leader representing a community college says their school lost between 900 and 1,000 students last year.

“They were hugely poor students, first-generation students and students of color,” the leader says in the report. “And while we’ve gone to tremendous efforts to reach out and try to get these students back, it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to get some of those students back, we should be really concerned about that.”

Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction on campus, the pandemic has similarly exacerbated the challenges universities and colleges face in urging students who have left to re-enroll. Their communication has become more personalized, participants say, as digital marketing campaigns pull all the stops—texts, emails, postcards, calls—to reach former students. Some institutions have launched incentives such as scholarships and free classes for students wishing to complete their degrees.

Says the commander of a special HBCU. “[It’s] More strategic…because we can narrow it down to our metropolitan statistical area.”

(Some) admission offices trench test

Most of the institutions participating in the New America study are open campuses, but some require a standardized test for admission. Those tests were among the first things to take when the pandemic spread and disrupted the lives of high school students, and many colleges and universities say they may scrap them altogether in favor of a more comprehensive assessment of students.

The institutions also reportedly looked at students’ academic history and grades more than they normally would. A leader from a private HBCU says their advisors asked for their grade 8 English and Math scores to help place them on the right freshman courses.

As with students targeted for re-enrollment, universities have had to scale up digital marketing to reach potential students during recruitment efforts. High school visits and campus tours – a vital part of showing the institution’s sense of community – are now virtual.

One for-profit college boss even started teaching an online social justice class to 150 juniors and seniors of high schools, during which they discussed topics such as the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

“Because the schools were also suffering, the college provided many free services to high school students. And what it did for the high schools was it gave those students a little bit of fresh air,” said the president.

The future of online learning

University and college leaders are confident that online learning will have an increasing role on campus, although exactly what that will look like remains unclear. It might mean more technology in their curriculum or more training for lecturers on online teaching.

While study participants say that online classes will not replace face-to-face instruction, there is no denying students and faculty see benefits for its flexibility. This was especially true among adult students and those with jobs or caregivers, according to the report.

Before the fall 2021 semester, some professors had already made plans to keep virtual items part of their courses, the president of one of the four-year regional colleges said.

“They are talking about the fact that one of the benefits of the pandemic has been that more students are able to deal with them now than before,” says the college president. “Because during the face-to-face sessions in the classroom, there were students who would never say a word… but because they turned to the internet, they noticed the students interacting with them.”

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