I t would be a fallacy to say it will be “business as usual” in higher education. It’s not, and there’s opportunity galore because of it.
All educational institutions have done a boatload of pivoting and adjusting the dial during the past 17 months. With that came a host of learning by the educators themselves, which surely will benefit college students in the coming months and years.
The pandemic dealt students, faculty and staff members everywhere a blow. However, it hasn’t weakened the ambition to become a college student. For example, the University of Wisconsin System reported in June of this year that freshman applications for the Fall 2021 semester were up by roughly 30 percent over the last two years, which had seen declines.
Post-secondary educational institutions have not taken the disruption of the past 17 months sitting down. Faculty and staff hurriedly pivoted to meet the need for alternate delivery methods of education.
Seeing their workforce respond to the challenge, education leaders and their administrative teams continue to stoke this spirit and determination. Our undergraduate students need our support, futuristic thinking and innovative solutions.
A June 2021 survey released by the Strada Education Network showed that almost 4 in 10 students (39 percent) cited feelings of too much stress, anxiety or uncertainty as their largest influence on a decision not to get more education.
Another study, published in Summer 2021 by America’s Promise Alliance, illustrated this anxiety. It surveyed high school students nationwide, and 78 percent of 11th and 12th graders indicated that COVID-19 had impacted their plans for post-secondary education. Among that group, nearly one in five students reported that their plans were affected “a great deal.”
Education institutions are very aware of the anxiety and stresses related to a compromised year-plus of education, among both current and incoming students. Knowing the current temperature and emotional state of its student populations — and the dramatic changes students have experienced over the past year-and-a-half — has only heightened an appreciation for student needs.
With an increased awareness of the life issues faced by students, enhanced support mechanisms have been put into place and there is an intensified focus on accommodating unique needs. Some of that is as simple as getting students caught up on whatever they missed last year. Other aspects are more complex.
Finances certainly is among the most pressing of student needs. This concern crosses all student populations, both traditional students and adult learners.
A strong indicator of anxiety about finances related to post-secondary education is the number of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) submitted. Inside Higher Ed reported in February of this year that completed applications had decreased, particularly among high school seniors, where the drop was 10 percent. Also noted was that students from disadvantaged backgrounds appeared to be disproportionally affected.
In its fourth annual Student Lending Survey, published in August 2021, Citizens Financial Group found that among respondents, roughly 7 in 10 had concerns around college affordability, both generally and for Fall 2021 enrollment. The America’s Promise study showed that almost half (47 percent) of students had changed their post-secondary plans for financial reasons.
Area colleges and universities understand this issue well, they know that it is a major issue for students, and they are addressing it. Millions of dollars in student aid already have been distributed as a result of available stimulus packages.
One positive of the pandemic year was that the institutions learned a great deal about delivery systems for education, technology uses and student preferences. This newfound knowledge will have long-lasting effects on the ways that education will be shaped and delivered.
I would say that, if anything, the menu of educational pathways has been enhanced. Every institution put unique systems in place based on its resources.
We must continue to make meaningful investments in advanced technology to meet demand along with anticipating the “new normal” for higher education.
Again, it’s important for all of us to remember that the appetite for college is strong. In the aforementioned America’s Promise study, among those students who said that COVID-19 had impacted their higher education plans, a majority, 66 percent, continued to hold a desire for attendance at either a technical college or fouryear school.
It’s on us to meet that demand and seize every opportunity to reinvent how we do it. The resilience of students, faculty and staff gives us the confidence to lead the way forward.
Jerry Murphy is the executive director of the Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance.