COVID-19 has impacted higher education in major ways, including lower enrollment, higher drop-out rates, and major changes in the admissions, enrollment, and engagement processes. Institutions had to evolve and transform to accommodate what became the new norm, “distance learning”.
Before the pandemic, many students who opted for distance education worked full-time or had other obligations and enjoyed the flexibility distance education offered. However, the increased number of pre-pandemic students inquiring about distance learning options enticed some traditional institutions to start offering some types of distance education. According to the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (2020) by 2019, more than 7,000,000 students were taking some kind of distance education courses. Distance learning programs have been judged by not providing the same level of quality as face-to-face programs for years. The COVID-19 pandemic may help change that paradigm.
In the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced more than 4,000 colleges and universities to implement emergency remote or online instructions for over 20 million students (National Council for Online Education, 2022). Many institutions were not prepared to handle the massive undertaking. They didn't have time to develop a plan that would protect the health of their community while providing quality education. The quality of instruction and student engagement suffered deeply. According to the National Council for Online Education (2022), “Most faculty have too little training, support or time to effectively pivot their face-to-face course to one we would characterize as high-quality online learning” (para. 4). This crisis is now forcing institutions to deeply analyze distance-learning options and develop best practices that would provide flexible quality education options.
The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on student engagement and how institutions conduct day-to-day activities. Students are now asking for many accommodations not necessarily related to health concerns and expect flexibility in attending classes, submitting assignments, and participating in activities and meetings (Gurung, 2022). Many institutions adopted pass/fail policies to help students maintain their academic progress during the pandemic. Students, who started their college education in the past two years, may adopt this crisis alternative as the norm for the rest of their college careers. Some institutions also waived their standardized testing requirements to accommodate the current health crisis, others to account for the "learning loss" experienced by students during the last few years. As a result, some of these institutions recruited one of the most diverse classes of all time. Would these practices help close the disparities in the number of minority students being admitted to certain colleges and universities? Would these measures help assess the effectiveness of standardized testing? Data collected during this period may help answer some of the questions and help drive new initiatives.
Institutions with large first-generation, low-income student populations have experienced significant decreases in enrollment; for example, Dona Ana Community College, in New Mexico, lost 40 percent of its enrollment (Brown, 2022). According to The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2021), the COVID-19 pandemic has endangered the progress in Hispanic students’ enrollment, which has been the fastest-growing demographic group in the United States. Brown (2022), reported that Hispanic young adults stopped attending college, "They've guided siblings through virtual school. They've cared for older relatives. They've worked to help pay bills” (para. 16 ). The need to offer flexible programs and course offerings is of major importance for the success of higher education, especially during a time of predicted downward enrollment trends.
Increased Mental Health inquiries have been experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some Institutions were not prepared to handle the high number of students seeking counseling. With the high number of Latinx students attending institutions of higher learning, the lack of Hispanic mental health professionals was also deeply felt.
As institutions compete for students and funding, attendance policies, deadlines, and grade reporting may also need to be re-evaluated to fit the needs of students, workers, caregivers, and, many times, self-supported young adults.
Utilizing the information acquired during the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions should reflect on current policies and processes. How can institutions create sustainable strategies and programs to cope with current enrollment trends and meet the needs of current students and employees?
- Institutions should evaluate the platforms and measures used during the pandemic and assess their effectiveness. They may need to adopt and edit policies to meet the needs of the current community, some institutions may need to implement or change their remote work or distance learning policies.
- Technology options may also need to be assessed, institutions were forced to make decisions in a very short amount of time and had to purchase products and technology tools that may not fit their needs. It is important to review and assess what works best for the institution and its student population.
- Faculty and staff need to have access to training on new technologies and be updated with new products.
- Curriculum and learning platforms should be reviewed to ensure materials and methods of teaching are appropriate.
- Institutions that do not offer student support services online, and those that do, should review and analyze its effectiveness. What else can be done to engage students? Can mandatory meetings be also available online? Do all courses need to be 100% face-to-face?
- Student engagement options need to be available online for students who cannot participate in traditional face-to-face activities.
- Are services, faculty, and staff adequately trained for the population of students being served? Does your institution serve a large number of Latinx and minority students? Do current policies, programs, and services align with their needs?
Once this is all set and done, we should all be better leaders and higher education professionals. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to reassess current practices and evaluate traditional learning in a very special way.
Brown, S. (2022, February 11). The missing Hispanic students higher ed’s future, and the economy, depends on their coming back to college. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-missing-hispanic-students
Gurung, R. A. R. (2022, February 16). Accommodating stress: Coping with student requests. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2022/02/16/advice-offering-accommodations-student-requests-opinion#:~:text=Be%20straightforward%20about%20what%20you,accommodations%20that%20elucidates%20your%20position.
Institute of Education Sciences (IES) (2020) [Data set]. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80
Members of the National Council for Online Education (2022, February 3). Emergency remote instruction is not quality online learning. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2022/02/03/remote-instruction-and-online-learning-arent-same-thing-opinion
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Regular Updates on Higher Education Enrollment (2021). National Student Clearinghouse Resource Center. https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/