People in higher education may already be sick of the word “pivot”, but this is undoubtedly what colleges and universities across the country have been doing a lot since the COVID-19 pandemic shook the education community.
In a new report, the think tank New America published interviews with 24 presidents and administrators of colleges and universities, who reflected on how the pandemic affected virtually every aspect of higher education.
We have collected some key points from the findings.
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While it’s no surprise that study participants – whose responses were anonymized – say their numbers dropped during the pandemic, many add that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated rather than created the problem. Some colleges and universities claim that technology and health care programs have been maintained or seen an increase in enrollment. Technical training programs, which are difficult to translate online, have reportedly been hit hardest by a drop in enrollment because institutions have been forced to reduce the number of people in the class.
Institutions have witnessed students struggling for a wide range of reasons, from internet access to loss of income. Leaders quoted in the report also highlighted the stress of closing schools for janitors, with one calling pressure on single mothers a “disaster.” Another says they watched the freshman leave because the student was the only member of their family who could find a job – 50 hours a week in an Amazon warehouse.
One leader representing a community college says their school lost 900 to 1,000 students last year.
“They were mostly poor students, first-generation students and skin color students,” the leader said in the report. “And while we’ve made a tremendous effort to reach out and try to get these students back, it’s very unlikely that we’ll get any of these students back, we should be really concerned.”
Without the benefit of personal interaction at universities, the pandemic has also exacerbated the problems faced by universities and colleges in recruiting students who have re-enrolled. Participants say their reach has become more personalized through digital marketing campaigns that have sought to reach former students. Some institutions have launched incentives such as scholarships and free courses for students interested in completing their studies.
“We focus on adults who have completed their studies through Hulu … We do a lot of things that honestly scare me at my age, from voice recognition through your smartphone and your smart speakers to geofencing and Facebook ad serving,” says the leader of Private HBCU. “[It’s] much more strategic … because we can narrow it down to our statistical metropolitan area. “
(Some) Ditch Testing Office Entrance Exams
Most of the institutions participating in the New America study are open-ended campuses, but some require standardized admission testing. These tests were among the first to be done when the pandemic seized and disrupted the lives of high school students, and several colleges and universities said they could abolish them altogether in favor of a more holistic assessment of students.
Institutions also reportedly looked further at academic history and student grades than they would normally do. The head of the private HBCU says that their advisors even asked students for English and math scores in the eighth grade to help them place them in the right courses for freshmen.
As with re-enrolling students, universities had to improve their digital marketing game to reach potential students during recruitment. Visits to secondary schools and tours of their campuses – a vital part of introducing the institution’s sense of community – took place virtually.
One for-profit college president even started teaching an online social justice class for 150 juniors and high school seniors, during which they discussed topics such as the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor from the police.
“Because schools also had problems, the college offered high school students many free services. And what it did for high schools is that it gave those students some fresh air, ”says the president.
The future of online education
University and college leaders are convinced that online education will play an increasingly important role in universities, although it is still unclear what exactly this will look like. This could mean more technology in their curriculum or more training for tutors on online teaching.
While study participants argue that online courses will not replace full-time teaching, there is no denying that students and teachers see the benefits of its flexibility. According to the report, this was especially true between adult students and those who have a job or are carers.
The president of a regional four-year college said that before the fall semester of 2021, some professors had planned that virtual elements would remain part of their courses.
“He says one of the benefits of the pandemic is that more students can now join them than ever before,” said the university’s president. “Because there were students in the classroom meetings who never said a word … But since they switched to online, they see more student interactions with them.”