Thousands will be out of college: What does that mean for students and institutions?

The implications of closing campus and/or turning to online learning, and 10 concrete suggestions for helping students cope
By: | March 16, 2020
(Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash)
Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit nonprofit higher ed institutions.

Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit higher ed institutions.

Many students enrolled in colleges and universities are now “out of school.” Some will be learning remotely. And closures will affect students across the educational landscape—from early childhood through postsecondary education.

This situation raises multiple questions for which we don’t have answers. Indeed, we have shuttered colleges and universities on short notice, leaving a myriad of open issues that will need to be resolved. In a sense, we are literally building the airplane for how to deal with COVID-19 (at least as relates to college students) while we are already in flight.


Read: How to prep faculty for e-learning during coronavirus closures


In this piece, I draw on my forthcoming book, Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door, to offer concrete suggestions for how to navigate the present and likely the near-term future. I have written elsewhere on and have spoken about school closures for traumas, such as school shootings and disasters. So this current piece draws on lots of my existing work and experiences.

Questions: From admissions and budgeting to online learning

We need to begin by recognizing that the implications of higher education institutions shuttering and/or moving to online learning are profound and for many, traumatic. Period.

For starters, there are economic implications in terms of current and future enrollment. There are issues of refunds for tuition and room and board, paid for in advance but not utilized because the residential and dining halls are closed. There are questions regarding the size and composition of new students entering college in summer or fall 2020. Will the numbers fall? Will orientations be held? Will foreign students be able to travel to campuses? Will students of all ages decide to change their plans and work or attend a local two- or four-year college?

There are technology issues, too, for colleges and universities that do not have robust online learning. How quickly can institutions ramp up the needed technology and how effective will instruction actually be from professors who are transitioning without preparation to the online world? And are we confident that all students have the needed technology and bandwidth to enable them to engage online facilely?


Read: How to make online learning more engaging


Of course, even if you vacate a campus of students, buildings need to be maintained. For starters, are we clear that students will have taken all their belongings with them when they depart? Who will make sure that these physical items are protected? How will rooms be cleaned and the normal maintenance continued?

What happens to institutional planning and budgeting? Colleges can just take their existing budgets, throw them into a waste container and start over for the balance of this semester and the coming academic year (2020-21), right? But what numbers will be inserted into a new budget? Will dorms remain empty? What about planned construction projects (including new dorms)? Are payments owed under long-term food services contracts? What about faculty and staff? Will more or fewer be needed?  Will giving to the institution go up or down? Will grants, federal and state, go up or down? Will student emergency fund needs rise so sharply that they make a sizable dent into available funds?

Institutions need to be honest and authentic—always.

We all get that financial changes of this magnitude are handled more easily by well-heeled institutions with robust endowments and plentiful alumni giving. But some institutions, even before the coronavirus pandemic, were struggling fiscally; we can ask sadly whether the virus will kill them if nothing else does? And ask these questions: Will institutions help each other or will each remain in their silo, navigating forward on their own.

I could keep framing questions, but I am sure readers have their own questions above and beyond those listed here. And for institutions with many low-income, first-generation diverse students, the added issues are plentiful. Housing, books, technology, work, home dysfunction, community risks. The list is long.


Read: How colleges use social media alerts during emergencies


Consider student mental health

Obviously, there is no single solution for how to deal with the myriad of questions that have arisen and will continue to arise.

But another important consideration: Once students get “home,” assuming they have a home and can get there, what will be their state of mind? Will they feel isolated? Will they actually participate in their online learning classes? What happens to students who need clinical rotations, internships and laboratories to complete their educational requirements? Sure, we can do biological dissections remotely through virtual reality and 3D goggles. What institutions are ready for that today? Will students be overwhelmed? Will they find ways to connect or reconnect with family and friends where they now are as opposed to those to whom they have engaged on campus?


Read: Student self-care practices on the course syllabus


Also consider that some students will become ill. Some family and friends will become ill. Relatives who live in foreign nations may be unable to get quality health care and may be unable to travel to another nation. And what if quarantines tighten so that human engagement is limited. Who will help students deal with this psychologically difficult dilemma?

Everything I have described can be traumatic.

10 strategies for helping students cope

There are five critical items/values that trauma takes away in the context of an educational setting, and their descriptions may not be self-evident or standard. They are: structure (as in the needed internal order to facilitating learning and a sense of comfort), stability (as in consistency of environment, teachers, staff and administrators), safety (as in a place where there is calm with an openness to feelings), subtlety (as in personalization rather than both homogenization and singular solutions), and someone(s) (one or more people to whom the traumatized student can attach and who believe in them unequivocally).

If we are going to help those who are traumatized by college and university closings and/or transfer to online learning (all traumatizing for many), we need to find ways to restore what trauma takes away. Stated differently, if we want to help students who have experienced coronavirus disruptions, we need to focus on instituting initiatives that restore structure, stability, safety, subtlety and someone(s).


Read: Videoconferencing in the classroom: 3 best practices


What follows is a set of 10 suggestions that can be considered and adopted with modifications that reflect institutional and individual context, culture, community and capacity. What works for one institution may not work well for another. And what works for one individual may not work for another. That said, the suggestions as adapted should still help ameliorate trauma if they remain true to the core values that trauma strips away. (Do note: I have left out most issues surrounding actual online learning courses and how they can be handled. There are existing experts well suited to handle those issues.)

  1. Offer a live daily online meeting/message to all enrolled students from the institution’s president and (not or) other members of the cabinet. This message can provide updates on the current situation on and off campus. The messaging needs to be presented calmly and it needs to be short (as in under 5 minutes). It needs to be held at the same time every day and communication of this (and the other items that need to be communicated to students) should be done through a myriad of means so they can all be brought into the loop—social media, emails, texts, calls. It should include: We are thinking of you; we are here for you; we can help you problem-solve. Above all, it needs to be honest and authentic.
  2. All institutions need to set up a telephone and online hotline (and share the number widely). This will allow students to ask questions and get responses. They should be handled by human beings, not just by artificial intelligence or messages with prompts to different mailboxes. Then, the questions need to be answered, and if the person in the position to answer does not know the answer, they need to respond honestly and then get the answer and get back to the student. This hotline needs to operate 24/7.
  3. The institution’s mental and physical health team members need to be available for telemedicine and telecounseling. There needs to be assurances of privacy, and there needs to be an easy method for setting up appointments. In a perfect world, existing counseling sessions could occur at the same time they occurred when the institution was open.

    Read: The changing face of on-campus therapy


  4. Faculty need to begin each remote class with some sort of message that helps support students. They should not just launch into the material as if nothing had changed except the mode of delivery. The message needs to be honest, and it needs to recognize that it may take a few minutes for all students to get on the same page. Topics that will be particularly anxiety promoting for students (grades, tests, labs, clinical rotations) should be addressed immediately—and the topic answers repeated on different days as reminders.

  5. Faculty need to provide students with ways to access them outside of the online class. Text, email, phone and social media are possibilities. Students may feel a real need to connect, and since there is no face-to-face time possible, there need to be equivalents set up.
  6. Faculty and staff need to identify one person who will regularly connect to each and every student on a regular basis. Some faculty and staff will already know which students have a connection to them. Other faculty and staff will need to be assigned to a student. The key here is for faculty and staff to help support students and ensure that they know someone cares about them on campus—and is there if they have questions, concerns or worries. This is a critical piece designed to establish attachment and reciprocity—and some training of faculty/staff may be needed. (And for the record, this should be an obligation of all faculty and staff during this time of need.)
  7. Colleges and universities can create chat rooms with regular hours. They can have Q&A sessions at set times; they can have general “get togethers” once per week. The point is to create repeating regular events in which students can choose to participate—just knowing they are there will be helpful to some students.
  8. Consider some shared lecture or presentation that students can attend (remotely) on topics of interest. Students can log in and ask questions and participate. True, this isn’t an on-campus event, but it can foster intellectual and even emotional engagement. Consider speakers from the faculty; consider outsiders who may be appealing for the students—from academics to athletes to artists. Ponder the possibility of a band concert where a band plays live (but alone), and students can log in and listen.
  9. Ponder the possibility of creating some events in which students can participate remotely. These could be game shows, quizzes or scavenger hunts. There could be a shared reading or a shared viewing of a movie or documentary.
  10. Be sure that all of the above-described items are on a calendar that is regularly updated and prominent. It needs to be delivered to students so they can see and feel the structure and stability that is being created. The contact of faculty and staff as described also needs to be consistent and stable and constant. Myriad forms of communication need to be established.

While different institutions will implement these items differently, the values of structure, stability, safety, subtlety and someone(s) need to be front and center. Picture these suggestions as if one were trying to replicate the best campus experience of students without the campus. Music, art and images can all be beneficial, too.  And above all: Institutions need to be honest and authentic—always.

I hope these are helpful. If and as you try them, stay in touch so other institutions can learn from your experiences. And if you have added activities, share them and we can grow the above list. At the end of the day, while institutions are distinct from each other, we share this goal: serving our students and enabling their success. The challenge of that statement is not lost on all of us in this difficult time.


Read: 3 keys to managing higher ed leadership—and family


And I have one more suggestion to educators: Take care of yourselves. If you don’t do that, then it will be very hard to help others.


Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit higher ed institutions.


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