Folks in higher education might be sick of the word “pivot” by now, but that’s undeniably what colleges and universities across the country have been doing a lot of since the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the education sphere.
In a new report, think tank New America published interviews with 24 college and university presidents and administrators who reflected on how the pandemic affected virtually every facet of higher education.
We’ve rounded up a few highlights from the findings.
Enrollment Takes a Hit
While it’s no surprise that study participants—whose responses were anonymised—say their enrollment fell during the pandemic, many add that the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated the problem rather than created it. Some colleges and universities say programs in technology and health care held steady or saw a rise in enrollment. Technical training programs, difficult to translate online, were reportedly hit the hardest by enrollment drops as institutions were forced to limit in-person class sizes.
Institutions saw students struggle for a broad spectrum of reasons, from internet access to income loss. Leaders quoted in the report also highlighted the stress of school closures on caretakers, with one calling the pressure on single moms a “disaster.” Another says they watched a freshman drop out because the student was the only member of their family who could find a job—50 hours per week at an Amazon warehouse.
One leader representing a community college says their school lost between 900 and 1,000 students last year.
“They were overwhelmingly poor students, first-generation students and students of color,” the leader says in the report. “And while we have made herculean efforts to reach out and try to get those students back, it’s highly unlikely we’re going to recover some of those students, we should really be alarmed by that.”
Without the benefit of face-to-face interaction on campuses, the pandemic likewise worsened challenges universities and colleges were facing in getting students who had left to re-enroll. Their outreach became more personalized, participants say, with digital marketing campaigns pulling out all the stops—texts, emails, postcards, calls—to reach former students. Some institutions launched incentives like scholarships and free classes for students interested in completing their degrees.
“We’re targeting adult degree-completion folks through Hulu … Doing a lot of things that honestly at my age scare me, through voice recognition through your smartphone and your smart speakers, to geofencing and running ads through Facebook,” says a leader from a private HBCU. “[It’s] so much more strategic … because we can narrow it down to our statistical metropolitan area.”
(Some) Admissions Offices Ditch Testing
Most of the institutions taking part in the New America study are open-enrollment campuses, but some require standardized testing for admission. Those tests were among the first things to go when the pandemic took hold and disrupted high schoolers’ lives, and several colleges and universities say they might scrap them altogether in favor of a more holistic evaluation of students.
Institutions also reportedly looked back further at students’ academic history and grades than they typically would. A leader from a private HBCU says their counselors even asked for students’ eighth grade English and math scores to help place them in the right freshman courses.
As with students targeted for re-enrollment, universities had to up their digital marketing game to reach prospective students during recruitment efforts. Visits to high schools and tours of their campuses—a vital part of showing an institution’s sense of community—went virtual.
One for-profit college president even started teaching an online social justice class to 150 high school juniors and seniors, during which they discussed topics like the deaths of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
“Because the schools also were struggling, the college has offered many free services to high school students. And what it did for the high schools is, it gave those students a little bit of a breath of fresh air,” the president says.
Future of Online Learning
University and college leaders are confident online learning will have a growing role on campuses, though how exactly that will look is still unclear. It could mean more technology in their curriculums or more training for lecturers on online teaching.
While study participants say online classes won’t replace face-to-face instruction, there’s no denying students and faculty see benefits to its flexibility. That was especially true among adult students and those who have jobs or are caretakers, according to the report.
The president of one regional four-year college said that, ahead of the fall 2021 semester, some professors had already made plans to keep virtual elements a part of their courses.
“They talk about the fact that one of the benefits of the pandemic has been that more students are able to engage with them now than previously,” the college president says. “Because during the face-to-face sessions in the classes, there were students who would never say a word … But since they pivoted to online, they are seeing more students’ interactions with them.”