Last spring, tens of millions of students were forced online as their institutions made the emergency transition to remote instruction. Many remain at least partially online this fall and possibly into 2021.
The pandemic has clearly upended the college experience for a generation of students and higher education professionals. The needs, concerns and aspirations of students are shifting. Now, more than ever, they are turning to their institutions’ support services for guidance. Institutional leaders are cautiously preparing for what lies ahead. But how do institutions prepare for so unknown a future? The answer lies in the path we were already on.
Colleges and universities face a host of financial, enrollment and programmatic unknowns. While some of these difficulties are indeed new, the reality is that many are existing challenges that have been magnified by the crisis.
That means institutions must fully address longstanding gaps in the student support experience — gaps that many in student affairs have already been working to close.
As school presidents agonize over how to reopen their campuses, student affairs and enrollment management leaders are working feverishly to make their services accessible to all students, wherever they are.
Current and prospective students both are grappling with enrollment and persistence decisions, while facing an indefinite future of face-to-face, online and hybrid learning experiences. Even before the pandemic, widening access to student services, increasing enrollment and retention and developing a higher-quality online or hybrid learning experience were a pretty familiar slate of issues.
Likewise, student mental health and wellness had become a significant concern on college campuses long before the pandemic. A 2019 American Council on Education survey found that student mental health had become a higher priority over the previous three years for 80 percent of college presidents.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, the percentage of U.S. college students with lifetime diagnoses of mental health conditions in 2017 was 36 percent, compared with 22 percent in 2007. The rate of students who received any mental health treatment, including therapy or medication, rose from 19 percent to 34 percent over those 10 years. Recent studies show that COVID-19 has only exacerbated these trends with students reporting increased anxiety and depression symptoms and over forty percent of students stating that they have attempted to seek mental health care during the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded long-standing mental health struggles, exposing more students to the trauma of personal and familial illness, financial hardship, displacement and psychological harm.
Given the breadth and severity of the issues at play, institutions must double down on their mental health efforts. All staff — not just academic advisors, counselors and coaches — should have training in basic trauma-informed communication and in triaging potentially dangerous situations
Prior to the pandemic, major demographic shifts in the higher education student population were also underway. For years, more and more first-generation, low-income, working adults and other students from historically underrepresented backgrounds have been enrolling in higher education, challenging outdated notions of the “traditional student.”
The pandemic will continue to have profound and lasting consequences on American higher education, even long after a vaccine or cure is developed.
The pandemic, of course, is now triggering additional changes. More recent graduates are starting their college careers online, while students from residential four-year universities are shifting to community colleges. An influx of displaced adult workers is returning to higher education, looking for new skills.
The rapidly increasing demographic and geographic diversity of students demands more inclusive and holistic support. Not only must such services be available anytime, anywhere; institutions must also provide developmental support in areas outside the classroom. Students will need additional help with time management, career exploration and connecting their academic lives to their long-term goals.
Despite this increased need for student support, most institutions expect to have the same or decreased financial resources to put toward these services, according to a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit InsideTrack.
Yet few institutions plan on allocating more resources to enhance student success, advising, or mental health services for students. This, sadly, is also not a totally new development. Instead, it is the continuation of a vicious, decades-old cycle that asks educators and student affairs professionals to do more with less.
The path forward will require institutions to double down on making the most of existing resources. They will need to provide professional development to existing staff and break down silos between all student-facing functions, developing an “all-hands-on-deck” culture. Student affairs must become a function learned across the institution, integrating people, processes and technology.
The pandemic will continue to have profound and lasting consequences on American higher education, long after a vaccine or cure is developed. As we navigate this historic, anxious and peculiar semester for higher education, it’s important to remember that many of the challenges we are now confronting are not inherently new — but rather a legacy of the systems, policies and choices of the past, compounded by the trauma and economic and social upheaval of this moment.
But now, we must take them on with a renewed sense of urgency. Student affairs professionals must anticipate the challenges every student may face, along with the gaps they can fall through. We must design the next generation of student services to better serve every student, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Kevin Kruger is president and CEO of NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. He has held a range of student affairs positions at Southern Methodist University and the University of Maryland.
Dave Jarrat has authored numerous papers on issues related to higher education and student success. He oversees InsideTrack’s strategic engagement and research programs.
This story about supporting college students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.