The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) opened its Annual Meeting on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., with dozens of sessions for leaders on key topics affecting higher education.
From global and civic learning to pedagogical innovation to equity and student success, the AAC&U’s hybrid event is addressing the sector’s future under the umbrella “Educating for Democracy.” Higher ed faces many challenges, but none more than enrollment and retention, student outcomes and the ever-lingering COVID-19.
Lynn Pasquerella, President of the AAC&U, says that as college leaders continue to work around and through the pandemic, it is imperative that they remain steadfast on their missions and push ahead with new initiatives.
“It provides an impetus for a focus on what an education for the 21st century should look like, what we’ve learned from this pandemic, and the need for integrative applied learning and helping students grapple with the unscripted problems of the future,” she says. “It has provided an opportunity for us to reimagine and revolutionize higher education in significant ways, by working with K through 12 and business and industry. That’s what our focus needs to be moving forward. And what students need is to be able to fully engage in this type of education. That’s where we look at access to digital resources, engagement and high-impact practices, making sure that they’re equitably accessed and working together for our shared objectives.”
The pandemic is still significantly impacting decision-making, with some colleges delaying their starts in 2022 and some going online because of surges of the omicron variant in their communities. Those temporary switches might be OK for certain institutions that can provide a robust education for students.
“I think it’s prudent,” Pasquerella says. “We saw before the end of the fall semester places like Cornell, when they had hundreds of students who were infected. It’s wise to take whatever precautions necessary now that we have the infrastructure in place to deliver a curriculum online. There are still some people in our communities who can’t be vaccinated, children under 5, people who have health susceptibilities. It is a holistic approach to public health that is important to demonstrate as we move forward.”
Moving forward tentatively
Most college presidents have expressed to the AAC&U that they would like to have mandates in place or have experienced moral distress because they can’t do so in some states. But most also want to open for business. They understand how essential the in-person education and residential experience is for students. “Every college president I talked to has as a goal to be back with face-to-face learning, integrating curricular and co-curricular activities,” Pasquerella says. “So much is lost when we can’t meet face to face. That doesn’t mean that we can’t deliver quality education online. It’s just that when we can’t be in person with each other, that experience is diminished in a real sense.”
One of the biggest considerations of any mandate or switch in modality has been how it will affect stressed and frustrated student populations, especially those that are underserved.
“At the forefront of college presidents’ minds and people in student affairs is, how can we best serve the needs of our students?” she says. “Community colleges are worried that vaccine mandates will provide a disincentive for people to return to college or to start college at a time when we know it’s more important than ever. We’ve seen a dramatic decline in community college enrollment, and they’re serving African-American students and Latinx students at a disproportionate rate. There’s the prospect of a lost generation of college students as a result of COVID-19. They’re trying to navigate their desire to get people back into college while trying to protect the safety.”
So providing resources and supports to go along with a flexible array of curricular offerings might be best for students from those institutions.
“The issue that we saw unveiled with the pandemic, is the food and shelter insecurity of individuals, and the expansiveness of the digital divide,” she says. “Low-income community college students might not have access to computers, to high-speed internet. We saw people in digital parking lots, lining up to get computers and computer software. But for many, the only opportunity they’ll have to get an education is online, because they are caregivers for their children for their parents or they have to work full time.”
Student well-being has been severely challenged by a confluence of forces – from COVID-19, to being pushed into isolated spaces to politics that are dividing the nation. It is up to institutions to find ways to provide assistance, to keep them healthy and keep their populations strong and on the road to completion.
“A big issue on the minds of campus leaders right now is wellness and mental health,” Pasquerella says. “We’ve seen so many instances of psychic distress among students. We have to look at what we can do to create a sense of belonging among all students, providing experiences for students that take into account the added pressures they have around caregiving responsibilities, the financial crisis that has resulted from COVID-19, this moment of racial reckoning. There are layers of complexity. How we can help people to speak across differences in a time of polarization and partisanship.”