As my students departed in December looking forward to the long break until January, who would have predicted that by the beginning of April they could only hope that college life would return to normality by the end of summer and a too-long vacation?
But here it is -- COVID-19, a pandemic that Joyce Smith, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, has described as a “situation changing by the hour practically.”
We hear repeatedly that “we’re all in this together,” and that’s true. Our primary obligations now must be caring for those with the disease and determining a vaccine to prevent it. Yet while this is obviously our foremost responsibility, the title of an article by Sara Harberson, a former admissions dean whose blog counsels high school students on college admissions, echoed what has been troubling me from the moment I suspected colleges and universities would close. “Students Are Scared” focuses on freshmen I’ll meet in the fall, as well as others who have moved on to graduate and professional schools.
It should remind us all that in the midst of national consternation over coping with COVID-19, higher education faces a twofold challenge: assessing and responding equitably to students’ uncertainty and stress from the virus’s effects and devising improved responses to future crises.
It is still too early to tell how well higher education, the public and the new media comprehend both the short- and long-term consequences for America’s students, who are in very authentic ways among the victims of the virus. But there are indications that their dilemmas and fears for the future may be underestimated.
The news media provides us with glimpses of students exiting dormitories and responding as best they can to “what’s next” questions. Frequently, it has focused cameras on irresponsible young people frolicking on the beaches of Florida during spring break, while often overlooking the majority.
At home, bemused administrators attempt coherent and transparent answers to queries about length of closures and monetary decisions concerning return of residence hall payments and the like. Faculty members are burdened with a deluge of decisions about designing coursework for online technology that many and perhaps most find ineffective and thus regard with ambivalence.
Meanwhile the vast majority of applicants to colleges and graduate and professional schools, as well as already matriculated collegians, can only speculate about their futures.
When this nightmare ends, as it will, the economy will suffer and eventually limp its way to better days. A few colleges will be forced to close, and that will be tragic -- even though, in some cases, it was not unforeseen before the virus arrived.
The news media will move on as it always does, and faculty, administrators and advisers will return to their respective positions, perhaps recalling it as a unique and particularly harrowing time.
But what about the students?
At this point in time, technology is, in most cases, our best alternative for coping with the crisis. There is no point arguing about the effectiveness of virtual education as a substitute for in-class instruction and interaction. It is not now, and possibly never will be, a settled issue, and no amount of research can ever yield valid and reliable proof of the superiority of either. There are simply too many variables that apply to every individual -- biology, brains, environments, personalities will never be identical.
A recent article in Education Week by Susanna Loeb, director of Brown University's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, identified a widely accepted weakness in online education that may be instructive in working with certain types of students: “It is not surprising that in-person courses are, on average, more effective. Being in person with teachers and other students creates social pressures and benefits that can help motivate students to engage. Some students do as well in online courses as in in-person courses, some may do better; but, on average, students do worse in the online setting, and this is particularly true for students with weaker academic backgrounds. Students who struggle in in-person classes are likely to struggle even more online.”
While probably reliable, their research nevertheless overlooks the fact that during this period in the nation’s history, distinct challenges and negative ramifications face all types of students. They impact not just the “struggling” but also those who are high performing.
ACT and SAT, crucial tests for both kinds of college applicants, have been postponed to June, and in the midst of the muddle are the students, my students. They are the current high school juniors and seniors we will meet in the next two years.
The ACT and SAT have fallen somewhat into disfavor, as institutions focus increasingly on diversity and growing student and public concerns about their causing “unnecessary stress and unreachable expectations,” in Harberson’s words. But the reality is that the scores matter. They matter not only for those in need of financial aid but those seeking merit or excellence scholarships.
The 2020-21 test scores will be especially instructive in determining whether high school students did, in fact, experience negative consequences because of interruptions in traditional class procedures. More important, however, will be how the ACT reacts to its established benchmarks and whether higher education institutions are prepared to deal with changes in evaluating students for admittance and monetary aid or awards.
Then there is the matter of high school grades. If the ACT and SAT are problematic, secondary schools’ evaluations of students are more variable and thus even less dependable. Already a matter of chaos, as we have no reliable standards by which to compare and judge assessments of work by millions of students tested by millions of teachers, how will colleges and universities effectively determine the next contingent of students to enter institutions?
College graduates of 2020-21 confront uncertainty not only with academic assessment and demands for service experiences but also with requirements for long hours of laboratory training, clinical experience, mandatory internships and/or co-op work. Graduate school students of all types face baffling concerns about ways in which their academic and experiential work will be compared with that of others from different higher education institutions and states with varied shutdown requirements.
Then there is the matter of role models and recommendations. If COVID-19 has created academic and experiential hardships for students, it has also threatened their futures where forming close relationships with faculty matter. Research by Gallup-Purdue revealed the importance of those relationships not only for academic work but also for life after college as well: “The study found that support and experiences in college had more of a relationship to long-term outcomes for college graduates. For example, if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being.”
There are no easy solutions that will lead higher education to solve this crisis or others that may eventually occur. But we cannot now or tomorrow ignore inevitable questions as we admit that adjustments must be made for young people forced to anticipate exceptionally uncertain futures.
We have experimented and dallied too long with unraveling the inconsistences that determine access to higher education by both traditional and nontraditional students. And it has taken a virus to prove the need to “get on with it.”
How can higher education institutions equably and consistently react to benchmarks in evaluating undergraduates for admittance and monetary aid or awards? In our current situation, for example, Florida chose not to use testing to evaluate high school students for graduation. How will its college applicants be compared to those in states that did so? Or to others like Maine, Nebraska and Iowa, where individual districts determined responses to the virus?
Which students will be accepted, and which will be rejected by institutions that have few consistent and reliable standards for decisions? How will students who have missed half semesters of extremely demanding courses be measured against those who have had more in-class instruction and personal time with teachers? What is to happen to students who have limited training and access to computers? Or to those who simply do not perform well using virtual learning?
We live in a very large country, and to deny that such scenarios exist is unrealistic, so much so that, at this point in time, the efficacy of remedies like online education appears to be the least of our worries as school districts and states pursue a hodgepodge of solutions to overwhelming concerns in internal and geographic environments that are poles apart.
If we are truthful, COVID-19 has taught us that the greatest challenge and obligation we face is recognizing that, in the long run, our students -- whatever their needs, abilities or aspirations -- are among the pandemic’s most severe and overlooked victims.
Half a semester, one quarter of an education year, is a long time for adolescents and postadolescents. Their losses academically, socially and psychologically are immense. And we need to remember that as we help them through this crisis and others we will face in the future.