How colleges can help restore what students lost during COVID

This challenge requires higher education to re-engage lost learners by rebuilding their academic skills and their confidence and supporting them until graduation.
Yolanda Watson Spiva
Yolanda Watson Spiva
Yolanda Watson Spiva is the president of Complete College America.

While the days of lockdowns and remote learning might feel like a distant memory, the data is clear that our K12 schools are still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the first detailed national study of learning loss connected to interruptions to school and life during the pandemic, America’s schoolchildren fell behind—some by more than half a year. Most have yet to regain the lost ground.

Even more alarming data on school absences suggest that K12 schools are suffering from a form of “long COVID.” Before the pandemic, 15% of students were chronically absent from school. A new report from the American Enterprise Institute found that chronic absentee rates have surged to 28% and have manifested consistently in school districts of all sizes and demographics. In the pandemic’s aftermath, more families are re-assessing their priorities around work and education. As one researcher told The New York Times, “Our relationship with school became optional.”

Chronic absentee rates cut much deeper than just the faltering recovery from learning loss. Students who endured remote high school during the pandemic have now matriculated to college, and the nation’s postsecondary institutions are reporting a “stunning” amount of student disconnection and a significant decline in college readiness.

“Too good to be true:” How one IT team unlocked millions with this simple trick 

This exhausted and overwhelmed pandemic-era generation is skipping college classes, struggling to recall what they’ve learned in class and leaving assignments undone. The growing number of high school graduates passing on higher education should alarm college leaders. For those who have been working to improve college completion rates, particularly for students from low-income, first-generation and historically underrepresented backgrounds, this is worrisome news.

How to re-engage lost learners

The college completion movement took root more than a decade ago when states and governors committed to connecting millions more Americans with post-high school education and training to create a workforce to meet the economic challenges of the 21st century. Their goal was for 60% of American adults to have a college degree, certificate or credential by 2025 that would give them a real opportunity to make better lives for themselves and their families.

The movement flourished when institutions made critical structural reforms to transform higher education into an engine of equity, prosperity and upward mobility for Americans of all backgrounds. Since 2009, the number of American adults with college credentials has climbed by 16 percentage points. Though we’re nearly six percentage points short of the 60% goal, there is no denying there has been real and significant progress.

As we plan for the academic year ahead, we can’t let the pernicious effects of the pandemic on learners and our education institutions undo these college completion gains. This challenge requires higher education to re-engage lost learners by rebuilding their academic skills and their confidence and supporting them until graduation. By following specific and proven strategies, the nation’s colleges and universities can reassure nervous students, families and policymakers and build pathways to completion of credentials of value that can lift up individuals and communities.

This effort begins with giving students a powerful sense of purpose by ensuring they have a clear and direct pathway through college to their personal and professional goals. Institutions can create first-year student programs that help learners assess their abilities and interests, set goals and learn how to reach their targets.

It’s also critical to build programs that engage adult learners, who often juggle school along with work and families. Academic majors should be aligned with careers, and students should be able to see how the technical and durable skills they’re learning hold value in the workplace.

Institutions should create a framework that’s structured to keep students on track yet flexible enough to meet students where they are. Colleges must offer clear course sequences, schedules with the right classes available at the right times and broad majors that let students explore their interests while advancing toward their degrees. Gateway courses in English and math should provide students with corequisite support that sets them up for success instead of derailing their progress.

Colleges and universities should build on-ramps so students can build momentum that will get them to the finish line sooner. Encouraging dual high school and college enrollment and awarding credit for prior learning can help students start college strong.

Evidence-based programs such as 15 to Finish/Stay on Track push students to take enough credits each semester to graduate on time, without delay and for less expense. The data show that full-time students who complete 15 credits each term perform better academically and are more likely to persist and graduate.

Finally, institutions must give students consistent support from enrollment to graduation. Academic services and advising programs must work in tandem to address student needs and remove barriers that hinder classroom success. Students should have a designated person on campus they can contact when problems arise.

Institutions should support students’ basic needs, as learners will prioritize access to food, housing and other over school. Because every student takes a different path to graduation, institutions that provide wraparound supports that meet a wide range of needs can remove any obstacles in the way.

When a growing number of high-growth careers require education beyond high school, higher education leaders and policymakers must redouble their efforts to ensure that learning loss, chronic absenteeism and disengagement with education don’t roll back hard-fought college completion gains of the past decade. If our nation ever hopes to meet its completion goals, higher education must help these students regain what they have lost.

Most Popular