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Higher education is one year into the COVID-19 pandemic. While many things are changing for the better as vaccine distribution expands, four out of five students continue to feel stress and/or anxiety due to COVID-19, and the extended impact of the pandemic is still being felt. Some schools continue to manage sudden campus closures due to spikes in COVID-19 cases after large student gatherings. Spring break is far from normal again this year, with many schools canceling spring break or replacing it with wellness days throughout the semester. As schools begin to resume in-person classes again, there are questions about equity issues that need to be addressed as students adjust to life in a new normal. Even as a return to normalcy seems closer than ever, many questions remain in higher education about how to maintain student engagement, safety, and health.
To increase student engagement, college and university leaders can’t simply go back to how things were. Student success in the future will be based on how higher education can learn from the past year, assess what students want and need now, and begin engaging students in light of how the pandemic has changed their expectations for higher education.
Real-World Mental Health Concerns Continue
Without a doubt, the mental health of students is a real concern in higher education and cannot be ignored. TimelyMD’s latest survey of over 1,300 college students discovered stress and/or anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic is still negatively impacting students. The top stressor according to students (75%) is the impact on the quality of their education. Additional concerns for students were not knowing what life may look like once a new normal is established (56%), isolation from friends and family (50%), missing a vibrant campus life (45%), and struggles with remote learning (40%).
On a positive note, nine out of 10 (91%) students found at least one coping mechanism that helps them feel better. Many of the top coping methods used by students involved connecting with friends and family, including video calls (63%), phone calls (52%), and spending time in-person with others in their risk bubble (38%).
This past year was a learning process for colleges and universities that were navigating how to care for students, many of whom were scattered across the country away from campus. Remote learning presented challenges not only academically for students, but also emotionally, as they struggled with a year of unmet expectations and unforeseen challenges.
The Need for High-Quality Mental Health Care
As a result of the continued impact of the pandemic, student mental health is still the top concern for college and university presidents, according to the latest survey from the American Council on Education (ACE). Based on research from Mercer University’s Caroline Brackette, students with mental health disabilities are at a higher risk to drop out of college. “Understanding factors that influence their satisfaction with higher education can enhance retention efforts,” said Brackette.
Despite increased efforts in higher education to reduce the stigma of seeking care, Brackette’s research found that students with mental health disabilities are still reluctant to disclose their mental health diagnosis due to fear of being treated differently. Engaging educators and staff in the work to identify students who may need support or connection with campus services is a great place to start. Higher education leaders can also take proactive steps to create a campus culture that embraces mental health.
Adaptability and Flexibility in Learning Environments
Colleges and universities moved quickly in the spring of 2020 to respond to the pandemic. In-person classes were replaced by Zoom meeting rooms, online learning, and virtual engagement. While Zoom fatigue is real for many, TimelyMD’s student survey found that there is still a desire for flexibility when it comes to student learning options in the future.
Just over half (51%) of students hope remote options for classes remain after the pandemic is over. Similarly, 39% of students would like to have video options to connect with classmates become available in the future, and 38% want virtual access to faculty to continue. Preferred learning styles vary among students. What works best for one student, may not create a meaningful learning environment for another. However, virtual, collaborative learning is something that many students would like to have as an option.
Find Ways to Hear Student Voices in Response to Enrollment Decreases
High-school graduates going straight to college in the fall of 2020 decreased by 22%, compared to 2019. This number was driven mostly by a drop in low-income and urban high-school students continuing to college. Across the country, higher education saw a 560,000 drop in the number of undergraduates enrolled in the fall of 2020, which represents a 3.6% decrease from a year earlier.
Doug Shapiro, executive director for the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said to Inside Higher Ed, “Colleges, high schools, and policymakers will need to work together to help bring learners back into higher education, particularly among disadvantaged groups who are struggling the most during the pandemic and the recession.”
It’s important to listen to what students are asking for to help them succeed. As student needs and workforce requirements change in response to the pandemic, higher education must provide opportunities for students to be successful after graduation. TimelyMD’s student survey found that 87% of college students wished their institution had provided more support during the pandemic across areas including:
- Remote academic support
- Remote health services, like telehealth
- Remote social support with group activities
New Means of Student Engagement
In The Chronicle of Higher Education’s webinar, The Future of Student Affairs, student services professionals from across the country discussed how the pandemic has added new layers of complexity to student life. The expert panelists discussed changes in the learning environment, breaking down barriers on campus, and ways to support vulnerable and disadvantaged students.
“We have to reach out to students in new and different ways. We need more active outreach,” said Paul Dosal, vice president for student success for the University of South Florida.
Dosal discussed his institution’s care management approach to student success that focuses on making referrals to the right service for a student as quickly as possible—sometimes even before a student is aware. The school works to identify at-risk students by looking at input signals such as stress, financial concerns, or poor grades. Based on these signals, students are connected with the right service, such as counseling, the financial aid office, or academic advising.
“We want to get to a student before they get to the point that they might drop out,” said Dosal.
How Remote Learning Caused a Shift
During the Chronicle’s webinar, Anna Gonzalez, vice president for student affairs for Harvey Mudd College, shared her institution’s proactive approach to wellness and student engagement after shifting to online learning. Harvey Mudd College, part of The Claremont Colleges consortium, pivoted quickly to provide access to telehealth services through TimelyMD. The school also used online student activities, direct outreach to individual students, and QPR suicide prevention training. QPR stands for question, persuade, and refer. The training helped faculty, staff, and students identify at-risk students, understand the right questions to ask, and get the student connected to the right resource.
“Oftentimes when students say, ‘I’m so stressed,’ we’ve forgotten to ask students why they’re stressed,” said Gonzales. “It could be that they have a lot of homework, or maybe they haven’t slept in two days. Why is that?”
In those situations, a student would typically be connected to the in-person counseling center, but because of the pandemic, that isn’t possible, said Gonzalez. As a community-based outreach program, QPR allows the institution to identify at-risk students both in and out of the classroom for that first-moment triage to the right resource.
Harvey Mudd College also tried new ways of engaging students online, with movie and concert nights that allowed students to watch something together. Students would connect via online platforms like Discord or Slack to communicate. These activities that felt more like hanging out were popular among students, said Gonzalez, rather than activities that required active participation over Zoom.
The Road Back to Normalcy in Higher Education
Even as the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available, the Chronicle’s panelists were still unsure of what the upcoming fall semester will look like. While many schools are anticipating a return to in-person learning, the need for COVID-19 testing is likely to remain. Perhaps surprisingly, 22% of students said they would like to see symptom tracker apps remain post-pandemic, according to TimelyMD’s student survey. While students want a return to a classroom community, traditional learning experiences, and the college experience, there is hesitation from some to do away with all of the public health precautions that have become so vital to keeping students safe.
The pandemic has caused many things to change at colleges and universities. As campuses begin to open to full capacity, some changes from the pandemic are likely to become part of a new norm. Higher education leaders who were already focused on student engagement and retention will find new ways of leveraging data and other resources to proactively identify students who may need help. Virtual mental health services, like telehealth, will continue to provide 24/7 access to high-quality emotional support that meets students where they are. Flexible, virtual learning opportunities that felt out-of-the-ordinary in the past are likely to be considered a more common way of engaging students.
“This is an opportune time to lean in and support students as they once again learn to navigate what a new normal feels like in society and on campus,” said Nirmal (Nim) Patel, MD, MPH, SVP of care transformation for TimelyMD.
The vision of TimelyMD is to empower students to be well and thrive in all aspects of their lives. If you’re ready to learn how a customized telehealth program can increase student engagement and help your students adjust to the new normal both on- and off-campus, contact TimelyMD today.