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College Readiness and COVID

The high school class of 2022 – a class that spent the better part of high school in a pandemic mode of learning and living – is now the college class of 2026. As they head off to college, it raises anew the question of how well prepared teens are for this stage. Are students less prepared for college because of the pandemic?

No two students were affected by the pandemic in exactly the same way. Learning loss was not distributed evenly, nor were the psychological, social and emotional effects of extended isolation and remote learning. Resilience is very challenging to predict. While some students bounced right back once in-person learning was re-established, others struggled to regain their footing, and there are hundreds of thousands of students who are still behind in meaningful ways.

Academic Losses

The degree of pandemic-fueled learning loss that students experienced was influenced by many factors including how long remote learning was in place, the quality of remote instruction, the level of technological, financial, and parental resources and support at home, to name a few.

While some schools rushed to get their kids back in person, in front of a teacher, other schools scaled back instruction and academic requirements and moved students to predominately asynchronous instruction- watching videos without the direct supervision of a teacher. Many students languished in this learning format, and pandemic grade-inflation concealed the academic losses the students experienced. How does one translate a pandemic A in Calculus to a grade during a non-covid year of instruction? How much did the students actually learn and are they ready for the next sequence of instruction? Are the foundations solid or weak?

McKinsey conducted an analysis in 2021 to gauge the academic losses and found that students were behind an average of 5 months in mathematics and four months in reading by the end of the 2021 school year. The learning loss was meted out inequitably. Historically disadvantaged and under resourced students were hit the hardest: effectively, the poor got poorer. A study conducted by the ACT found that by Spring of 2021, students had lost the equivalent of 3.4 months of instruction in reading, 3.3 months in math, 3.1 months in science, and 2.3 months in English. Similar drops were found for younger students in the most recent NAEP assessment, AKA the “Nation’s Report Card,” and MAP Growth assessments of Reading and Math skills.

At the college level, some professors have seen a change in the quality of the cohort of students entering in 2021 and beyond. The Hechinger Report noted significant declines for students in entry level classes. A veteran math professor at UT Austin, Uri Treisman, noted that 25% of his students in the fall of 2021 failed intro Calculus compared to 5% in an ordinary year. Treisman’s colleague at UT, Kristin Patterson, reported an increase in failure rate for her intro to genetics course from 2 to 4 percent to roughly 20%. In a virtual panel, Postsecondary Pathways: Remedying College Readiness in the Wake of COVID-19 Learning Loss, the President of Pitt Community College in NC, found that “because of the learning loss, many of our freshmen students were not ready for the math courses that they would face.” Similarly, the Director of Delaware’s Higher Education Office found that the “lack of college readiness caused an increase in failing grades or withdrawals from entry-level courses, particularly math and English.”

Many students who struggled academically during the pandemic never even made it to college. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse paints an unsettling picture with a decline of 1.4 million undergraduates since the onset of the pandemic, disproportionately representing students from lower socioeconomic groups and underrepresented minorities.

Social and Emotional Learning Losses and Psychological Effects

For many students, the pandemic led to complications that transcended academics. The isolation hit certain students particularly hard, and for many, changed their life courses. Rates of depression and anxiety increased among teens, and many well-functioning, well-rounded kids went into a downward spiral during the pandemic. The McKinsey study found increases in social withdrawal, self-isolation, lethargy and irrational fears resulting from the pandemic. The CDC reported that in 2021, 37% of high school students reported experiencing “poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Students experienced meaningful losses- of experiences, milestones, loved ones- that affected their lives.

Students thrust into the world of remote schooling missed out on many meaningful opportunities for social and emotional development. There’s nothing like in-person contact to develop and strengthen our social skills, our ability to read non-verbals, manage conflict and regulate emotions. Some students have been resilient and sprung back into healthy social patterns, while others are still playing catch-up from the lost opportunities.

Going forward

At a macro-level, the federal government has allocated historic levels of financial resources to help stem the learning losses from the pandemic. In excess of $200 Billion has been committed over a three-year period through the American Rescue Plan (ARP), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA). More resources will help hire new teachers, fund remedial programs, and enhance tutoring support to help students catch up and narrow the gaps.

Individually, students may need focused academic support in key areas, particularly in the domain of mathematics, where gaps and holes can become highly disruptive and limiting in subsequent years. As noted by the educational leaders referenced above, absent strong foundations, advanced courses may prove extremely challenging to students.

Just as students may benefit from tailored academic support, they may also benefit from mentorship and social support as they navigate the college landscape. The transition to college can be challenging for many, and students don’t need to make that transition entirely on their own. In some cases, therapy and counseling may be highly beneficial.

The pandemic was hard, on adults, and especially on kids. As society moves forward from this great disruption in our lives, we must look to support our young adults, to resource them deeply, and encourage their resilience as they move forward in their lives and academic careers.


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