5 ways colleges can engage students returning to campus this fall

How to get students out of their pandemic shell and back to engaging on campus.
Charles Knippen is president of the NSLS, the nation’s largest leadership honor society.

At long last, many colleges and universities are preparing to reopen and create some semblance of normalcy in the fall 2021 semester. This is especially great news after Strada found that more than one-third of adults had to modify or cancel their education plans due to COVID-19.

Unfortunately, current enrollment numbers are not matching the enthusiasm higher-education institutions have about reopening. According to a June 2021 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 600,000 fewer students enrolled in the 2020 spring semester than the same time last year, down 3.5 percent from 17.5 million students to 16.9 million—the largest drop in a decade. Low-income students were among those most affected by this trend.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven how quickly educators can respond to challenges. However, this disruption is also occurring alongside concern about the value of higher education in the post-pandemic world. Students surveyed by Strada last year were 18 percent less likely to think higher education would be worth the cost and 25 percent less likely to think it would help them get a good job than in 2019. In addition, students are returning to campus this fall with the double challenge of re-engaging with the student body and their academic obligations, as well as a growing sense of uncertainty about the future. Administrators may be feeling the pressure to meet their obligations while addressing the challenges their students face.

Institutions can address both of these issues with their post-COVID engagement strategies. Effectively connecting students and meeting their evolving needs will be key to boosting enrollment and bolstering retention in the coming years.

Administrators should keep these tactics in mind as they strategize for the fall 2021 semester.

1. Find out what students want and need

The pandemic made virtual learning a necessity, giving many students a greater degree of autonomy than they’ve ever had before—even in the most self-directed higher education environments. For many students, the disruption to normal life provided an opportunity to better understand their preferences, especially in terms of how they learn and socialize.

It may be alienating for these students to suddenly return to rigid structures, so educators need to be mindful of how they engage those used to an unprecedented level of self-direction. One of the most powerful ways educators can engage with returning students is to ask for their feedback and ideas and then act upon them. This will make students feel like they have more ownership of their college experience.

Consider conducting surveys that include lots of room for qualitative answers, or holding an in-person town hall where students can openly air their concerns with each other, as well as educators and administrators.

2. Establish hybrid learning environments as the new norm

In December, the California State University system boldly announced that all 23 campuses would fully reopen in fall 2021. At the same time, its virtual learning systems developed in response to COVID-19 would remain as a mainstream and easily accessible way to attend classes. Many institutions are following suit, given the continued concern about contracting COVID-19 on campus. In 2020, research by The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators showed that almost 60 percent of all students surveyed were worried about catching COVID-19.

Moving forward, institutions should furnish learning environments students are comfortable with to strengthen retention. Even enrichment programs, such as the National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS), are switching to hybrid models. The NSLS will premiere its new hybrid leadership education model in the 2021-2022 academic year so students can continue engaging with the curriculum and fellow members safely and conveniently.

3. Highlight activities and organizations to rebuild community

It’s more important than ever to remind students there’s more to the college experience than attending class. Clubs, fraternities, and sororities offer great opportunities for students to socialize, while academic organizations and student government can help members form lifelong collaborations and get a jump start on their future careers, together.

Guide these organizations on how to best engage with potential members ahead of the fall semester, and be prepared to support them more than usual. More than anything, people remember the relationships they build over their lifetimes. Colleges encourage engagement any time they facilitate opportunities for students to bond.

4. Give sophomores their missed freshman experience

For many, becoming a college freshman and moving to campus marks a significant turning point as the first chapter in their adult lives. This experience was disrupted or completely taken away from many students in 2020, so they’re now facing freshman orientation at a time when they should be confident and in the swing of campus life.

Acknowledge this delayed landmark by creating special “sophomore orientation” programming. It should capture the experience of introducing students to campus for the first time and coach them on how to make up for perceived lost time. Devise ice-breaking and networking activities around setting goals for the rest of their academic career, which will be different from those of the incoming freshmen whose college experience was not interrupted by COVID-19.

5. Offer opportunities for leadership training and personal development

In April, Best Colleges released a survey that found 95 percent of students suffered from mental health issues as a result of COVID-19. Nearly half reported that the pandemic has negatively impacted their education. Research by Boston University had even more alarming findings. After screening 33,000 college students across the country, they found more than half tested positive for depression and anxiety as a result of mounting stress from COVID-19, political unrest, and systemic racism.

Many of the soft skills students learn in leadership training can help them effectively manage stress and anxiety. What’s more, personal development programs present a framework for taking action and moving out of the paralysis caused by uncertainty—especially for today’s college students who are deeply immersed in social problems. In fact, Psychology Today reports that problem solving is the number-one way to reduce stress and anxiety, and it may be good for cognition. NSLS Leadership curriculums empower students to solve issues while they build relationships with peers interested in doing the same.

COVID-19 changed life as we know it, disrupting plans for students and educators, alike. Educators who view this time as an opportunity rather than a challenge can foster engagement and academic dedication from students at rates even higher than before the pandemic.

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