The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched on longer than any of us could have anticipated. College and university leaders find themselves starting a new school year with questions familiar from the last: How do we keep our students and staff safe? How do we navigate the new frontier of digital learning? And through it all, how do we rebuild our relationships with our students and the confidence they have in the value of their college experiences after so much disruption and stress? This last question has preoccupied much of my thinking in recent weeks as we prepare for our annual student success conference, CONNECTED21. More than ever before, this year’s conference will be a chance for executives and student success leaders to take a moment away from their immediate concerns to ponder what changes will be needed to support students in the years to come.
As difficult as the last year and half have been, we should take stock of some of the positive innovations and advancements that have come as a result. Through these tough times, we’ve made important strides in building awareness and solutions for long-standing problems that were not getting enough attention prior to the 2020 shutdowns. We should do everything we can to maintain this momentum and ensure that we emerge from the pandemic stronger than we were before. Here are two such areas that deserve special attention:
Focus Area #1: Equitable social mobility and postsecondary value
Postsecondary education is said to be the gateway to the middle class. The promise of social mobility is one of our primary value drivers, yet the pandemic has made that made that dream more difficult than before. By now we all understand that the economic and emotional burden has been disproportionately shouldered by people of color and working-class families, and we have concerns this will continue. The so-called “K-shaped recovery” is benefiting the privileged and affluent while expanding inequity for everyone else. This is acutely true for our students, and the long-term ramifications are profound.
For example, pre-pandemic studies tell us that students who are not reading proficient as early as third grade rarely catch up and are half as likely to eventually go to college. McKinsey estimates that the move to online instruction during the pandemic left elementary school students with four months of “unfinished learning” in reading and five months in math—that’s more than half a school year! Black, Hispanic, and lower-income students experienced even larger gaps. In a few short years, these students will be on the doorsteps to college. Will we be ready to support them and their aspirations?
Answers can be found in the work of the Postsecondary Value Commission. Launched in 2019 and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Postsecondary Value Commission (PVC) brought together more than 50 of higher education’s foremost thought leaders to inform the role postsecondary education can—and should—play in promoting equitable opportunity and economic mobility. Included in their final report is a detailed roadmap for articulating the value-add of a college degree and eliminating barriers to equitable access and completion.
The PVC report concludes with an action agenda for institutional leaders to follow as they work to close equity gaps and ensure more students can benefit from the social mobility offered by their institutions. Among your first steps should be a comprehensive equity audit to reveal policies and practices that perpetuate inequities. You must also modernize your data systems to allow you to more readily and regularly analyze policies and outcomes disaggregated by race, income, and sex. Understanding the inequities present on your campus is a necessary first step in meeting your equity goals.
Focus Area #2: Student mental health
Student mental health has been a pressing and growing concern for years, and most schools feel that they have not been able to keep up. Students rely on their schools to be the primary provider of a wide range of mental health support services; we are their best—and often only—option.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic drove the demand for mental health services through the roof. Eighty percent of college students report that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health, and sixty percent say that accessing mental health services has gotten harder than it was before. Parent surveys reveal an increase in anxiety and depressive behavior among children and adolescents, many of whom who will soon become college students.
How can colleges keep up with this elevated demand? Nothing can or should replace formal mental health care provided by a trained professional, but there are some things we can do to supplement these efforts. Advisors can intentionally and routinely check up on basic physiological and psychosocial needs when meeting with students. Instructors can get training on how to support mental health concerns in the classroom and how to properly refer students to help when concerns arise. Faculty can also embed mental health and well-being into their curricula, to encourage student reflection and dialogue.
Another way to normalize student dialogue and help-seeking behavior is via the students themselves. Students are more likely to tell a fellow student than anyone else about their mental health concerns. Recognizing this, organizations like Active Minds work to scale student mental health awareness through peer advocacy. Over the last two decades, Active Minds has founded chapters on 800 campuses and worked with over 16,000 students. By making it normal to talk about mental health, Active Minds peer advocates help make it more likely that struggling students will come forward and be connected with help.
Looking to the future
We aren’t thinking much about the future these days, but we should be. In some ways, the pandemic will be “over” when we can sunset the elevated public health measures and return to a semblance of normalcy. In other very critical ways, the impact of the pandemic won’t be “over” any time soon and might have ramifications for many years to come. Yet, there is reason for hope. The pandemic has built critical momentum behind the long-standing challenges of mental health and equitable social mobility. It’s up to us to seize on this momentum and use it over the coming years to make a better future for our students.
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