By Senior Associate Kendall Rathunde
Higher education has been upended. Institutions are balancing budget cuts, the risks of Covid-19 transmission on campus, virtual and in-person instruction, and the retention of students deeply concerned about their futures. As survival creeps into the realities of our institutions, and the risk of mission-drift increases, we must insist they do not forget yet another responsibility—listening to students.
Despite prevailing uncertainties, asking college students about the purpose of higher education evokes a remarkably steady answer: to learn from others with others. Yet many institutions seem to be missing out on opportunities to learn from student consumers and tap into this essential data source. In other institutional and business realms, organizations wouldn’t make drastic changes to their product offerings without looking closely at consumer feedback.
How can we learn from students?
People facing higher education as students offer vastly different insights than alumni, advisors, career academics, or administrators. One of the aims of the Sorenson Impact Center’s MAPS Project is to contribute to a new vision for higher education that more effectively centers students and communities. To build student-centric solutions, we are asking students about how they’re experiencing the impact of disruptions to education, and the structural inequities that have built unbalanced and disparate systems of student support. We are paying for their time and contributions, and creating dedicated spaces for students to feel empowered as consumers.
What have we learned so far?
Students are reporting fear, a laundry list of uncertainties, and sometimes limited communication and compassion from the institutions they trust to launch their future. The Center’s student engagement work started with a series of in-depth interviews with 23 students from different backgrounds who attend community colleges, four year public institutions, and private schools from all over the country. What we heard from individual students is further supported by survey data collected from over 50 different sources, which have been synthesized into the MAPS Data Dashboard. Several themes emerged.
Students have a great deal of empathy for the situation, so far.
In our interviews with students, almost every student who described a criticism of their institution qualified their statement with an expression of empathy for those making difficult decisions. One student explained, “I appreciated how frank they were at the beginning, saying, ‘We were not prepared for this, we don’t know exactly what we’re going to do, things are changing, plans are being made on the fly.’ So it was not only myself kind of in this tailspin, or difficult situation, but it was everyone. But I didn’t agree or fully appreciate all of the academic policies that were made during that kind of crazy semester.”
However, as fall semesters continue, decision makers should expect this empathy to be finite. In addition to students, likely voters are transitioning from empathy to strong feelings about oversight and management in higher education. Students want to see that their trust has been invested wisely, and that their institutions are prepared to proactively respond to disruptions.
Students are worried about online learning.
Many students expressed high anxiety about being successful in their online classes, and whether or not lapses in quality would cause them to miss out on essential learning opportunities in their field of study. This fear is rooted in experiences from spring semester. “I would say it was definitely stressful, especially because I’m a hands-on person. Everything in class is the best way for me to learn. Now I’m forced to have to learn it online instead of taking my time with the professor and making my way to the goal of finishing the class with good grades instead of having to force my way and get mediocre grades.”
According to a recent survey from EY-parthenon, about 25% of students reported being extremely dissatisfied with remote learning. Of the students who declared their intention to withdrawal, nearly 40% cite remote learning as a factor. Regardless of overall satisfaction, 65% agreed on the loss of value, expecting that costs would be reduced if remote learning continues.
Students understand the dynamics of access and privilege.
Most of the students we interviewed acknowledged their privilege at some point during the conversation. They described feelings of guilt, anger, a desire to practice humility, and long term-perspective about the unsustainable costs of higher education that students have been asked to bear. Early indications from the fall semester demonstrate low-income students and students of color have been most likely to drop out or never enroll in the first place due, in part, to barriers like technology and broadband access. Drops in community college enrollment, which was initially expected to rise, and fewer applications using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have some higher ed leaders worrying about losing a whole generation of low-income students.
One student commented, “Fortunately through scholarships, resources, and help from family, I was able to graduate with no student debt. But I know that’s a luxury that the majority of students don’t have. Is it right to keep increasing tuition because people will still be paying when the only people that will be paying are the privilege wealthier class? Do we just want to sacrifice that people are going to stop paying for education and be less educated in our country or figure out a more reasonable means of providing people access to higher education?”
Stress is a four letter word.
Over the course of our 20 minute interview, one student used the word “stress” 27 times. A survey of nearly 40,000 students from the Hope Center found that at least half of the respondents were experiencing moderate anxiety. While stress is a universal feeling during the pandemic, we can’t forget that most college students are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, and still developing healthy ways to cope with stress. A recent Centers for Disease Control survey found that one in four young adults ages 18-24 described considering suicide this spring. Anxiety is a consistent theme across multiple areas of concern for students: quality education, the job market, cost, and numerous basic needs like food and housing security.
How should institutions of higher education use this data?
As campuses open this fall, we already see a disturbing trend emerging. Students will become scapegoats for Covid-19 breakouts. They have already been labeled selfish and immature for attending large gatherings and even cited for breaking safety guidelines. Unfortunately these missteps could negatively affect the desire of decision makers to collect and use real time feedback from students about solutions that will help them persist and complete their education during this challenging time. This failure will impact students for whom higher education is not a clear or certain path.
So far, we’ve seen a number of requests from students to increase transparency and responsiveness to Covid-19 related disruptions. Resident Advisors at the University of Utah threatened strike in response to a lack of information about positive tests and limited safety and sanitation supplies. A student editorial from the multi-campus community of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s, and Holy Cross described students feeling in the dark about infections and quarantines on campus even though infections on campus drew national coverage.
When vetting a new restaurant or business, we all feel better when a customer’s poor yelp review is met with a response from the business offering to make it right. While some institutions may feel overwhelmed beginning new student engagement strategies amidst a crisis, administrators can take the first step by listening to students and validating their concerns.
See how students are sharing their stories with the MAPS project here.