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The State of American Education: How to Get Students Back on Track

The State of American Education: How to Get Students Back on Track
Institutions must better accommodate students undergoing emotional and financial stress to rebound from the plunging enrollment numbers caused by COVID-19.

Getting nearly one million students back in the classroom after the initial COVID-19 shutdowns requires a change in higher ed delivery; it needs to be more accessible to more people.

Whether through funding, timing, online classes or any other methods, the state of higher ed in America needs to be examined.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): In terms of positioning and value proposition, why did you decide to launch a study on the state of American higher education?

Courtney Brown (CB): We’ve been doing a report on the state of higher education for about ten years, in partnership with Gallup, to understand actual student perception. When we have a student-focused higher education system, we must know what’s important to them and what they value.

In summer 2020, we saw a dramatic decrease in enrollment. When the pandemic hit, people were guessing all over the place. Is enrollment going to increase? Will there be a recession? And traditionally, when we see a recession hit, enrollment increases—but because there’s a pandemic, are we going to see something else? Institutions didn’t know what to do, and we wanted to know what students were thinking.

Then we saw enrollment plunge. Luckily, we were already working with Gallup on a survey of students to ask them what was happening, what they were thinking. To returning students or those who enrolled in fall 2020, we asked why they were staying enrolled or why they decided to stop out and how likely it was they would return.

We did that study first to see what students were thinking. And as institutions began to open up, we thought things were going to start to get back to normal. But they didn’t—enrollment was still down and continued to decrease through spring 2021. So, we thought it was important to do the survey again in fall 2021 to better understand what was going on with students, what they were thinking about and what was holding them back. Since we had a vaccine by then, institutions and organizations were better equipped to handle the pandemic, but students still weren’t coming back.

EVO: Did any findings surprise you when you reviewed the results?

CB: There’s so much data in here, but a couple of things really stood out to me. The first is that students value higher education. I’m saying students, but we’re also talking about people who have never enrolled in higher education—because they were also surveyed. You could see across all those groups—those who stayed enrolled, those who stopped out and those who had never enrolled in higher education—­­­­­they all valued higher education. And they all said, “Yeah, I need that. I need learning and skills. I need them to get a promotion, to get another job.” I thought that was really interesting information because it counters the myth we hear when we don’t ask students why they’re not enrolling.

The second, alarming data point is the emotional stress concern. Students said the reason they are considering stopping out was emotional stress. And that number increased so much from fall 2020 to fall 2021 was shocking to me. We had a vaccine, institutions were opening up and students were not as isolated as they were in 2020, but it just shows that all these things continue to compound on students. They’re dealing with academics, finances, family responsibilities and a health scare happening across the globe.

Those are things I found incredibly important and actionable for institutions to do something with.

EVO: What are some lessons you hope a higher education leader reviewing this data walks away with?

CB: First and foremost, to respond to emotional stress, institutions need to be better equipped to think about the whole student, not just the academics. They also need to think about students’ finances because they’re afraid higher ed is too expensive. They need to think about the impact COVID-19 has had on students’ emotional and physical well-being. Where they’re going to live, what they’re going to eat—all these things impact students. And without these comprehensive services, many students aren’t going to be able to continue their higher education journey.

Another step is academic readiness and preparedness. Over the last two years, institutions—from K-12 to higher ed—have done the best they could, quickly moving from in-person to online, trying to figure out curricula and teaching methods. But the reality is that students lost out on a lot of learning.

Another interesting point I found in the results was that some students said they did not feel academically ready. And that number actually increased quite a bit from the previous year. It was nowhere as high as emotional stress, but I do wonder: Those first-year students perhaps who’d come right out of high school and had a virtual high senior year that was maybe not as comprehensive, did they just need some extra help to ensure they were academically ready?

EVO: What are some of the practical changes that need to be made to support an environment geared toward learner completion and success, as opposed to gearing toward weeding out the weak from the graduation pathway?

CB: Institutions should be enrolling people and getting them through completion. That should be their goal. The phrase “Look to your left, look to your right. At least one of you will no longer be here in a year or two” should never be used again. Colleges need to focus on getting the student through, and that requires, again, more than academics, more than sitting in a lecture hall and listening to a professor. It requires different levels of learning and more accessibility for all types of students. Adult students can’t participate in postsecondary education like a 19-year-old can. They have different expectations. And many 19-year-olds can’t participate in higher education; unlike students in the 1970s, they also have family responsibilities and financial barriers that require them to work.

Another interesting finding in the report came when we asked students what kept them enrolled through the pandemic. They said it was their financial package, and I thought that was incredibly important. Institutions prepared to provide financial incentives to reduce tuition, so students can continue to participate are extremely important.

And we need to make sure we’re continuing that, so nobody is unable to attend because they can’t afford it.

EVO: Was there anything that came out of the report that confirmed your assumptions around where the higher ed industry is today?

CB: We asked why students weren’t enrolling, why they hadn’t ever enrolled, why they weren’t re-enrolling just yet, and they all talked about cost. We know cost is a factor. They hear higher education is too expensive and inaccessible, which shows we need to do a much better job communicating the real cost of higher education and encouraging more people to complete the FAFSA.

FAFSA completion rates are down. How do we turn them around and ensure more people are completing a FAFSA, so they do have access to funds when they need them? We need to make sure students are aware of the different types of institutions, different cost structures and ways of accumulating credentials—getting an associate degree and then building on it with a bachelor’s degree or whatever they need.

It’s about communicating and working with a student and putting them first, not just assuming they’re going to access our resources just because we have them hidden somewhere on a website.

EVO: Is there anything you’d like to add about this year’s report and how you’re already starting to plan next year’s?

CB: There’s always so much more information and data to collect, but I think this report was extremely important. I hope institutions, organizations and policymakers in particular pay attention because there are a number of policies at the federal, state and institutional levels that we really need to be looking at to make sure that more students have access to postsecondary education.

When enrollment is dropping by almost a million students over the course of the pandemic, we don’t just need to pay attention to this—we need to take immediate action. We must think about how we can reverse this enrollment plunge. Otherwise, we’re all going to face some pretty harsh consequences—individuals, communities and our nation.

This report is the first step, but we need to continue to get it in people’s hands and help them figure out what to do as far as next year.

My hope is that we’re going to begin to see a change in enrollment. Ideally, we get to at least where we were pre-pandemic, but we must far surpass that if we’re going to actually achieve the community, state and national goals we need to.

In early May, we released the “Some College, No Degree” report in partnership with the National Student Clearinghouse. In 2019, the last time we reported this, 36 million individuals in the United States had some college, but no degree. Today, there are 39 million. That means they started at an institution and for whatever reason stopped out. 39 million people and those are pre-pandemic numbers. We have to reverse this!

We need to continue to think about what students need, what their perceptions are and what they’re thinking. If we don’t listen to students, then we’re not going to do the right thing. So, we have to include them. We need student voices in what we’re doing. We’ve begun to think about what this next instrument may be and what the surveys are. And we’re also listening to our partners and others who have questions and need the answers the reports can provide. So, we’ll continue to work and promise we’ll let you know when we have that out.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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