College Students Post-COVID Struggle in These Areas

The challenge of college can be an eye opening experience for even the brightest student, but many high schoolers are finding they don’t know basic college skills like how to manage time or prepare for a test. These are skills they missed while attending high school during the pandemic while taking classes virtually for more than a year, rarely having homework, and most tests being open book. These struggles can hit college students hard in the first semester. University leaders have encountered many more freshmen this year in this situation — students who don’t have the base of skills that will make them successful in college. And they all agree about the cause: nearly five high school semesters upended by the pandemic, and less accountability placed on students because of it.

Educators say students entering college this fall have fewer study and test-taking skills, such as simple tactics like preparing note cards or the value of study groups. They’re less communicative with professors when they need extra time to complete assignments, have difficulty staying on task, and have fewer coping mechanisms when adversity strikes. University of Northern Colorado administrators, for example, say they have had to double down on efforts to help freshmen succeed, teaching basic skills to help them adjust and navigate the new environment. The gap between how prepared freshmen typically are for college and how this year’s class is performing surprised Stephanie Torrez, the university’s student academic success assistant vice president, who has spent more than 26 years in higher education.

“This is who students are now. It’s not what I’ve expected, even from my own children,” she said. “I have a freshman in college here and he’s not the person he was two years ago.” The college has a few strategies to help, such as an increased emphasis for peer mentors, tutors, and counselors to connect one-on-one with freshmen so they can figure out if they need on-campus resources. University leaders say they are optimistic a focus on individual needs will pay off. The retention rate for the class of 2021 was the highest it’s been in the last decade, offering hope that the school is on the right track. But they realize that as more students come unprepared, the school might need to increase the number of mental health counselors and train more staff on how to help when students are struggling with classes or with their mental health.

Additionally, students are finding themselves out of practice in social situations, and these anxieties are showing up in lots of classes at the University of Northern Colorado this fall, faculty said. Students are disengaged and less motivated to attend events, even fun ones like football games. College leaders know that ultimately, they have to meet students wherever they’re at to address those gaps, said Hollie Chessman, research director at the American Council on Education who studies student mental health and well-being. And students are heading to college after unique circumstances, she said. Some schools have responded to the challenge by using federal relief money to increase mental health resources on campus. Others are using summer bridge programs to help students adjust to college life, Chessman said.

One strategy: University 101, an elective offered to all freshmen. This fall, about a quarter of the freshmen took the class, similar to previous years. But instructors have struggled more this fall within that class, which covers study skills, work-life balance, and stress management. Attending therapy counts as extra credit. In a class that’s supposed to be low-stakes and teach students about accountability in college, this year, more students than usual have turned in assignments late, and they sometimes argue whether they should show up in person, said Jordan Martell, who has taught the class for four years. Students are also more disruptive during class — talking during lectures or arriving late, Martell said. Students have also argued against a zero grade rather than do the work.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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