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Pandemic grads less prepared for college

Advisers say students lag academically, socially, and emotionally


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Pandemic grads less prepared for college

As the third cohort of pandemic-affected high schoolers transitions to college campuses this semester, some students are struggling to make the jump. Education advocates say that pandemic-related closures and policies contributed to academic and social challenges.

Herbie Walker is the president of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling and the director of school climate and college counseling at Faith Lutheran Middle School and High School in Las Vegas, Nev. He said that virtual learning itself isn’t necessarily to blame, but rather the quick pivot from traditional classroom education to remote learning and then back to in-person learning.

Walker, who also volunteers with youth programs serving high school students from several local schools, said that even pre-pandemic, students often struggled with math. Anecdotally, he said he now sees increased difficulty with writing. “Students are having a much harder time expressing themselves,” he said. “I struggle to get kids … into more nuanced details about what’s happening in their personal lives or personal academics and things like that.”

Students entering their freshman year of college likely spent at least their high school senior year learning in person, a fact Walker says alleviates some of his own concerns about student preparedness. But he added that students from low-income families often had more barriers to education during pandemic-related school closures. “Even a school that was giving a top-quality, virtual experience, the students on the other side didn’t [always] have an ideal situation to receive that education,” he said. “They were in homes where they may or may not have stable Wi-Fi or they didn’t have a computer or … were there enough computers to go around? Was the bandwidth enough for three kids to be logged into virtual at the same time?”

A May 2022 ACT report showed that average student ACT scores have decreased even as student GPAs have risen. This trend, known as grade inflation, predates the pandemic but may have increased at a greater rate since COVID-19 first shuttered schools. Disparities between exam scores and school-awarded grades could point to individual school differences rather than actual loss of learning. But Walker pointed out that colleges and universities adopting test-blind policies remove that constant standard, essentially relying only on high schools’ assessment of their own students’ abilities.

It’s not just about academics. Walker said some students have shown delayed emotional development: “We had sophomores and freshmen that behaved like they were in seventh and eighth grade.”

Heather Rhodes is the dean of business and technology at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas. Because many of their students plan to go into career and technical education, readiness for college-level math and English proficiency isn’t often as much of a focus. Rhodes said that school officials are more concerned about students’ social struggles. The school organized peer groups in the spring where students could share about their college transition experiences and make connections.

Allison Wagner, founding executive director of the college completion program All-In Milwaukee, said the group first welcomed 40 freshman students to the program in 2019, and this year accepted over three times that number.

Wagner said that when reviewing 324 student applications for this fall, she worried over how many transcripts showed half-day releases for work arrangements or a lack of science and math classes due to teacher vacancies. She also worries about students’ mental health needs such as anxiety and the effects of isolation. “[We’re] very concerned about them making this major life change to go to college and really concerned if they have the mental health strength for what is ahead and the challenges they’re going to face, if they are academically malnourished, and universities are not prepared to meet their needs in the way that they need to.”

According to College Track, over a quarter of high school seniors from low-income families decided against college during the pandemic.

Elizabeth Morgan, chief of external relations for the National College Attainment Network, said some students went straight into the workforce to help support family members, often landing well-paying jobs due to low employment rates. Other high school graduates, having finished their high school education in remote learning, knew that they wouldn’t learn well in college environments that continued the virtual model due to pandemic concerns.

“Many of our students before the pandemic were on the edge about whether to go to college or not—it was going to be a big lift for them and a big risk in many ways,” she said. “The additional uncertainty of the pandemic, it just tipped the balance for them.”

But Morgan said those numbers may be returning, now that most colleges are once again in-person. She pointed to rising FAFSA completion numbers as an indicator that more students are planning on college.

Wagner said that some students will need extra remedial courses or credit recovery, and may take more than four years to graduate. All-In Milwaukee encouraged many of its students to apply for summer bridge programs that included college courses. “We really wanted them … to test drive the car before they bought it,” Wagner said.

Cunitz reiterated that pandemic-related school closures affected students differently, and some more than others. “Students who had access to the internet and could attend live Zoom classes were in a different position than students who didn’t,” she said. “Students who had a quiet room where they could do their schooling were in a different position than students who had to share a computer with siblings … What the pandemic did was to make the inequities in the system more stark.”


Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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