Who Is Missing From College During the Pandemic? A Lot of Students, Actually

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They might be on your roster, but they’re ghosting you. So what’s an online professor to do when students just aren’t participating?

That’s the question that San Francisco State University professor David Pena Guzman is facing during the pandemic, when, as at so many colleges, his teaching has shifted online.

“I sent out targeted individual emails [saying] Hi Nancy. Hi Peter. Hi Eduardo. I am noticing that you haven’t posted and you haven’t uploaded any assignments. I just want to reach out personally to you to make sure that nothing is wrong. And if there’s anything I can do.”

Some students got back to him and said they are struggling with adjusting to online and would like an extension so they can get back on track—which he says he gladly granted. “But then there were also the students who just never responded. And so there is this massive question mark hovering over several people in my roster, and I’m just not sure what to do.”

This week we continue our semester-long series taking you inside college life during the pandemic with audio diaries from professors and students on six campuses. We’re focusing on who is disappearing from higher education due to the pandemic and what professors are doing to try to keep students motivated in these challenging times. At times it can seem even like a mystery story as schools work to figure out who, exactly, is missing at a time when many of us are focused on our own social isolation.

New numbers released last week from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. is down 4 percent this year, compared to last year and enrollment of students starting their college careers is down 16 percent. And that, mind you, is based on the beginning of the term.

Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University who studies higher education, says it’s too early to tell whether students who have started this semester are able to finish it. “And that’s something that could end up being a real concern,” he says.

It turns out the largest enrollment drop has happened at the community college level, where numbers are down about 9 percent since last year. And first-time community college enrollments are down 23 percent.

One community college student who is very plugged into this is Trillia Hargrove. She’s a student at City College of San Francisco, a two-year college, and she is a volunteer fellow for a campus group called Students Making a Change. The group is working to help other community college students stay on track with their studies.

“I worry that people are going to increasingly give up,” she says, “not because of their own abilities or lack of motivation even. It’s the fact that they have all of these responsibilities [like watching kids who are at home with remote school] that are taking priority over their education.”

It turns out that students all over the country are wrestling with this same decision. That was clear from a recent anonymous survey of about 450 college students across the country conducted by Livia Morris and her identical twin sister Julia. They know what the student experience is like right now, because they both just graduated from the University of California at Davis in July.

One of the questions they asked on the survey was: Has the pandemic altered your academic plans? If so, how?

“One person said, ‘I dropped out of my four year degree and actually transferred back to a community college. You know, who does that? Who goes from four year to community college?” says Livia. “And other students are saying, ‘I haven’t dropped out yet, but let’s see how fall goes because now I’m actually considering it.’ I feel like that topic of conversation is probably coming up a lot more now.”

Julia added that dropping out used to have a bigger stigma, even if a student paused education only temporarily. That might change, she argues. “One of the professors that I was talking to shortly after all of this started was essentially encouraging his students to view these next two years as a box—this metaphor is a special box that is completely your own, where you’re free from norms and expectations that once applied,” she says. “And now is the time, perhaps the only times in your foreseeable future, where you can actually do things off the cuff, try something new … to take risks, to explore. And you’re not going to be judged as harshly for it.”

One of David Pena Guzman’s master’s students who is thinking of dropping out until the pandemic is over recently came to his online office hours to get his input on whether that was a good call.

“My advice to her was first of all, [that] I don’t think you’re a quitter or that you’re making an anti-intellectual or anti-academic choice that somehow reveals that you’re not serious enough as a student,” he says. He said his instinct was to encourage her to do whatever was going to make her happiest, “and in this case, it seemed like leaving was the right choice for the student.”

So did Guzman ever find the rest of the students who ghosted him in his classes?

“With those students, I’ve felt initially a pretty acute sense of impotence, followed after a few weeks by a sense of resignation,” he says. “I simply had to accept that I would not know what’s going on with those students, and that the most I can hope for is that they will read my emails and either communicate with me or realize that they need to withdraw on their own so that they avoid an F that will have a negative impact on their GPA, or that in some way they will begin submitting their assignments so that they can catch up.”

And for the students who do show up, Guzman says he’s hyper aware of how they behave in Zoom classes. If someone who usually turns her camera on has her video off that week, he wonders if maybe she’s having a problem.

“I’m usually the person who doesn’t stress very much—I’m the person who doesn’t imagine the worst case scenarios,” he says. “But COVID-19 is turning me into a person who experiences the world in a slightly different way.” Now, he adds, “I over-interpret when my students are not showing up as they normally do. Should I reach out or should I not? I want my students to know that they can talk to me about whatever they need, but at the same time, I don’t want my students to feel as if they have to justify every time they choose to turn off their video or their audio, or every time that they can’t come to class for whatever reason. And so I’m finding myself having to do some internal tug of war with myself in terms of how much I need to project myself into the lives of my students.”

He imagines other professors are feeling the same way these days. “And the difficult thing,” he concludes, “is that, of course, there is no clear answer because we are in uncharted territory”

Petitions for a Day Off

While there are certainly some students on the edge of dropping out, a far bigger number of students just want a break—the kind of breaks that usually dot the academic calendar.

At Purdue University, for instance, there’s a popular outcry among students to add a couple of days off to the semester. Purdue is in an intensive limited-break semester so that it can finish the semester around Thanksgiving. But here we are in October, and people are feeling drained.

The student-body president at Purdue started a petition calling for the administration to add a reading day. It states: “The lack of vacation time has taken a significant toll on the health and well-being of our community. A recent survey of around 4,500 undergraduate Purdue students representing all campus demographics found that a significant amount of students are feeling exhausted and drained during our 5th week of classes.”

More than 10,000 people have signed on, at a college with about 41,000 students. In response, the university senate today approved making Nov. 4 an optional reading day, though it’s up to each professor whether or not to honor it.

The sense of burnout was echoed at other campuses as well—by students and professors.

“I actually paused in the middle of lecture once on my Zoom lecture [with 200 students] and we talked about self care and how important it was,” says Rachel Davenport, a senior lecturer at Texas State University. “It’s hard for all of us.”

Hear more on the full episode of this week’s podcast. Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

This is part five of a seven-part podcast series. Check out episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, and episode 4 as well, and look for the next installment on Nov. 3 on the EdSurge Podcast feed.



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