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Guest Post: The Narrative About College Students and COVID Is Wrong

Guest post from Christine Wolff-Eisenberg of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice on what the pandemic helped reveal about students and what they need to support learning.

March 30, 2022

Like many who have a vested interest in the success of today’s learners and teachers, I often find myself coming across arguments for why we must get college students back on campus for face-to-face learning. In recent months, many have been spurred by colleges and universities modifying the start of the spring semester in response to the Omicron variant. These perspectives span news media to social media, from those working in colleges and universities to those entirely removed from the sector. And yet they tend to have a basic premise in common: college students are uniformly young and healthy, isolated from at-risk communities, and demanding in-person learning.

This premise is deeply flawed.

When we fail to unpack commonly referenced myths about today’s college students, and base judgements and commentary on flawed data, we are telling students that their experiences and perspectives that conflict with this narrative don’t really matter. We are signaling to those that don’t fit the “typical” college student narrative that they don’t really belong there.

While it may be tempting to think of the pandemic in the past tense, its impacts are still very much present, and there are lessons to be learned from what it has revealed about long-standing barriers and inequities in higher education. With college enrollment rates already trending down and dropout rates rising, we simply cannot afford to spend any more time on these falsehoods that perpetuate social, emotional and economic harm.

Today’s college students are not uniformly young, able-bodied and financially secure.

Let’s start with college student finances. Nearly three in five students experience basic needs insecurity. This means that they do not have access to sufficient food, a stable place to live or in some instances both.

When we think about where, how and even if students can isolate during the pandemic, for example after contracting or being exposed to the virus, we must consider that not all have access to these most basic of resources. I will never forget the student I interviewed prior to the pandemic who couldn’t afford to have his laptop battery fixed and therefore resorted to exclusively using his phone for coursework. His story is unfortunately not an uncommon one.

Then there is age to consider. Within the community college sector, which represents more than a third of undergraduate enrollment across higher education, students are on average 28 years old. Nearly one in 10 are over 40. The numbers are not far off for four-year colleges and universities, either. These statistics have huge implications for weighing risks related to COVID transmission and health outcomes.

And speaking of health, roughly one in five has an existing disability. In addition to those not currently able-bodied, institutions are contending with the growing share of their students that will be afflicted by short- or long-term COVID symptoms.

Today’s college students do have complex lives outside of the classroom

At my organization, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, we have an important mantra that guides our work: students are humans first. We recognize that college students have complex lives outside the classroom that impact their decisions and success within it.

Many students work. An overwhelming majority of those who attend college part-time—eight in 10—are employed. Even those who are attending college full-time are employed at high rates. When instruction modalities shift or are insufficiently flexible, many students struggle to make their work schedules adapt—and given what we know about their financial standing, many have to make tough decisions about continuing their education in these moments.

Over a quarter of all undergraduate students are parents, too, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of those that have other types of caregiving responsibilities. There are many students like one I spoke with several years ago—a part-time student, full-time worker, parent of a young child and spouse to a partner balancing the same roles themselves—whose opportunities for formal learning are completely shaped by other circumstances.

Clearly, for many students, their identity as a student is just one of many identities competing for their time and driving decisions about risk mitigation.

Today’s students want to connect with their peers, but this may not translate to demand for face-to-face learning

There have been some alarming statistics presented over the last few years about large shares of students being unlikely to re-enroll if remote learning continues. On the one hand, there is plenty of evidence that many students are experiencing high levels of loneliness, anxiety and disconnection from peers. We should take these issues seriously—but we should also strive to understand what is driving them.

There are important distinctions between wanting to engage socially with peers, wanting to live on campus and wanting to experience in-person learning. Given what we know about student demographics and experiences, it shouldn’t be a surprise that many students do want at least some digital course offerings moving forward. At the City University of New York, our country’s largest urban public university, over 25,000 signatures have recently accumulated on a petition for greater provision of virtual options. Hundreds of students at Vanderbilt University have petitioned for the same.

There aren’t yet good statistics available on students choosing certain modalities over others when options are presented, but I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if virtual and hybrid course sections are filling up more quickly than in-person ones. Just as many working adults have sought more flexibility and autonomy with work arrangements since the start of the pandemic, many students are looking to maximize options that accommodate their complex lives and responsibilities outside of the classroom.

Postsecondary education can provide better jobs, higher wages and a strong sense of self-worth. When we talk about who should have these opportunities, we must include those who don’t fit the “typical” college student narrative. In fact, we should feel an urgency to center these students, as many have educationally and personally been most affected by the pandemic already.

When institutions are responsive to the needs of their students, students are more likely to succeed in enrolling, progressing, and graduating. Students, their institutions, and local economies all benefit from these efforts.

So while we cannot fully anticipate the specific challenges that the ongoing pandemic will continue to bring to colleges and universities, we can recognize where current popular narratives about today’s college students fall short. And there is plenty of evidence that shows us exactly where these narratives are falling short.

Christine Wolff-Eisenberg (@cwolffeisenberg) is a senior learning specialist at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, an action research center at Temple University.

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