One Year Later: A Reflection on Our Early Pandemic Predictions for Higher Ed

It’s been one year since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States. Within a few short weeks, the spread from person-to-person and state-to-state had begun, and a “new normal” was upon us. It’s difficult to believe that a full twelve months has passed, even though at times, it feels much longer. The pandemic has affected our lives and our communities in ways that are too innumerable to recount. We have experienced social isolation, financial and business collapse, and most tragically, the devastating loss of more than 500,000 Americans, and it’s still not over. Even as doses of vaccine are administered to millions of people in this country every day - providing a collective sense of hope that an end to the pandemic is insight - we are still months away from declaring victory.

Even then, the residual effect on our economy and our systems will be long-lasting. This is certainly the hard reality that higher education must face, one that became evident to us in the early months of the pandemic as it became increasingly clear that the temporary disruption to classes and campus life would not be so temporary after all. In April 2020, we issued a warning bell and a call to action about specific ways the pandemic might affect students - and how institutions could ready themselves to address these impending issues. Our first report, “When the Crisis is Over: Becoming Student-Ready in Post Pandemic Higher Education,” turned out to be equal measures prophetic and overly optimistic. We wrote it envisioning a “return to normal” that was weeks away, not months down the road. Yet the projections of how the student experience might be disrupted, and how colleges and universities could transform to be more student-ready, turned out to be more accurate than we could have anticipated.

The report focused on three particular student groups: rising seniors, current students, and unemployed or furloughed adults. We outlined the challenges they might face as a result of the pandemic, potential pitfalls that would threaten their success, and clear steps that institutions and states could take to, not only mitigate those risks, but improve policies and processes that were harmful to students long before COVID-19 existed. Now, as we enter the second year of this crisis, there is still much we don’t yet know about the breadth and depth of impact to students.

We know, for example, that enrollments went down, driven both by students postponing college entry and from lower-than-normal retention. We don’t know, however, how many of the college students who stopped out will try to return when they feel it is safe to do so, and what portion of those returning students will face challenges in resuming their studies as a result of barrier-creating policies like satisfactory academic progress and financial aid requirements.

We also know that adults have, as predicted, been looking to higher education in response to economic disruptions, unemployment, and furloughs, as a path to improve their job opportunities. While that interest has grown, so has the skepticism that returning to college will be worth the time or cost. We don’t yet know the extent to which these adults will ultimately enroll in, and successfully graduate from, postsecondary institutions, but we will continue to support reforms that are intentionally focused on this historically-marginalized group.

As it relates to rising seniors, on the other hand, it is crystal clear that the pandemic has opened the floodgates of major reform to admissions, testing, and placement into first-year math and English courses. Last March, we predicted some level of disruption to ACT and SAT-taking as well as on-campus placement testing. However, the level of actual disruption was far greater than we might have guessed, with these measures being largely unavailable for a significant portion of the incoming student population.

Colleges and universities sprung into action with unprecedented speed, and saw dramatic results. They made college entrance exams optional, which essentially leveled the playing field for students who did not have equal access to the tests and test preparation programs. Evidence suggests this has had the effect of accelerating diversification. At the most selective institutions within the University of California system, for example, Latinx applicants rose by 33% at UCLA and 36% at UC Berkeley, while Black applicants rose an astonishing 48% at both institutions.

Institutions also abruptly overhauled their process of determining which students were allowed to access college-level math and English courses, and which would be assigned to non-credit bearing remedial courses as a prerequisite to college-level work. Fortunately, in many cases, the only metric they had available was high school GPA, which is proven to be a much better predictor of college performance than testing. They also turned to a process known as guided self-placement, in which a student has assistance understanding their course options and selects the course they feel is most appropriate for them. Minnesota State, for example, began placing students using high school GPA and relied on guided self-placement if GPAs were unavailable or more than ten years old.

Student-Ready Strategies has had the opportunity to work with over 20 institutions in recent months that have seen the pandemic, not as a time to delay drastic action, but as a wake-up call to permanently revise their placement policies. They are taking a hard look at their data, shifting their focus away from testing or adding non-test options for students to access college-level coursework, and then going even further. They are also questioning the system into which they are placing students by critically examining the effectiveness of remediation (or lack thereof). Many are choosing to simply place all students in college-level courses and provide them with aligned support, if necessary.

This rapid transformation to postsecondary policy and process could be an anomaly. Or, if could be an early indicator that the pandemic’s long-lasting negative outcomes for higher education will be met with equally long-lasting improvements to our country’s colleges and universities. Perhaps institutions definitively seeing that rapid change is possible , and witnessing how that change results in dramatic improvements in equity and student success will fuel an era of transformation in which more colleges and universities become the student-ready engines of social justice and economic vitality the country needs them to be.

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