Last Year Was Miserable. Can Colleges Make This One Better?


The semesters from hell. Like pouring energy into a void. The great disengagement. However you describe it, faculty members, staff, and administrators across higher education agree that this past academic year was among the most difficult they’ve experienced. Class absenteeism was rampant. When students did show up, they were painfully silent. Many failed to turn in work or disappeared entirely weeks into the semester. And no amount of effort seemed to change things. By the time summer rolled around, many limped, zombielike, across the finish line.

That all came as a surprise. Colleges thought they had prepared by putting professors through workshops focused on creating engaging and flexible classes. They were excited to offer in-person clubs and events. Yet little of that made a difference in many classrooms.

How can colleges avoid another soul-crushing semester? Looking back, campus leaders point to several misguided assumptions they made going into the fall of 2021. One was that students’ excitement about returning to campus would result in a seamless transition back to in-person learning. In reality, first- and second-year students in particular struggled mightily with the norms and expectations of college life after months of isolation and online education.

Another assumption that proved faulty: that students would seek help when needed, or take advantage of it when offered. Instead, professors reported that struggling students were not responding to messages of support, showing up for study sessions, or pursuing tutoring or counseling services. The problem was particularly pronounced among those who had dug themselves into the deepest holes.

As they process what happened, faculty members and administrators are taking a deeper look at the connections among mental health, feelings of belonging, and the ability to learn. “We anticipated that there was going to be some learning loss in terms of academics just because of the way that students had been learning,” says Beth Ingram, executive vice president and provost of Northern Illinois University. “I don’t think we anticipated the social-engagement learning loss from being remote for a couple of years.”

Those realizations are informing what colleges are planning for new and returning students this fall. That includes more emphasis on teaching them a blend of social and academic skills, embedding peer mentoring and tutoring into undergraduate life, emphasizing belonging and engagement in course design, focusing on wellness across campus, and reaching out to students as soon as they show signs of academic struggle.

But planning will only go so far if colleges have scarce resources. Many are struggling to hire enough student development staff in residence life, counseling, and other key areas. “Wanting to be innovative is difficult because you just don’t have the people,” says Dawn Meza Soufleris, vice president for student development and campus life at Montclair State University, which is making do with about 10 percent fewer people than is needed.

The scale of the challenge, too, is daunting. “You can pull out 100 students and give them a summer start program and that’s great,” says Daniel Berman, vice provost for undergraduate studies at Temple University. “But if you have an incoming class of 5,000, that only helps so much.”

Add to the mix exhausted professors, who are understandably resistant to the message that they may need to do more or different things come fall. After all, they did that a year ago — and it didn’t work.

Warning Signs

The warning signs at Montclair State appeared early last year. Student surveys in the fall of 2021 showed a marked drop in those who felt a sense of satisfaction, engagement, and belonging compared with undergraduates just two years earlier. Their behaviors, too, were different, says Soufleris. Many struggled to understand social cues, didn’t seem to know how to talk to one another or to participate in a classroom.

“We had students telling us, ‘I don’t even know how to approach somebody to be a friend. I don’t know how to date,’” she recalls. “Probably the No. 1 thing we heard from our students this past year was, ‘I’m not sure I know how to belong.’ And that’s so devastating.”

Last summer about 800 incoming students participated in a five-week summer bridge program that combined general-education coursework with coaching, tutoring, and discussion of college-success strategies like time management. Early registration figures suggest that those who completed the program will return to campus in slightly higher numbers, says Soufleris. So this year, in addition to offering the optional bridge program, the university is building some of those strategies into an expanded orientation for all 3,800 first-year and transfer students.

The weeklong orientation includes academic coaching and advising, plus a focus on how to build relationships. Being in small groups led by peer mentors, where students can talk about things like how to make friends and advocate for yourself is now a necessary part of acclimating to college, says Soufleris. “I think we often assume, especially at large universities, that well, they’ve just got to figure it out. You know what? This is a generation that’s been through a lot and they can’t just figure it out. We have to help them do that.”

Richard Steiner-Otoo, a rising junior and head of the Student Government Association, agrees. For many students, he says, “you don’t know what a normal year looks like. You don’t know what getting involved is.” He’s planning more, and smaller, events in the hopes that previously disconnected students can see that there is something for them, even if it’s just a karaoke night. “We’re making sure that we get students engaged from Day Zero.”

DeSales University has fewer than 3,000 undergraduates but many of the same worries. The campus is developing a yearlong program, First Year Connect, to sharpen students’ academic and social skills, with programming that adapts to their needs and interests as the year progresses. “A crash-course approach is not going to be sufficient,” says Scott Mattingly, associate dean of academic life.

Students in the Montclair State University summer-bridge program sit outside Richardson Hall, one of Montclair’s science buildings, July 25, 2022. (Mike Peters, Montclair State U.)

Mike Peters, Montclair State U.

Montclair’s enhanced orientation program will be modeled on its summer bridge program, which includes academic coaching and a focus on the soft skills needed to succeed in college.

While it is a work in progress, Mattingly says putting students in small groups with peer mentors and helping them build confidence in their ability to succeed in college will be a central part of the program. “How do you navigate the postsecondary landscape?” he asks. “It’s not just a question of first-generation students. It’s everybody now.”

Belonging in the Classroom

If one facet of the fall strategy is preparing students better for class, another is to better prepare classes for students.

A growing body of research has demonstrated how a strong sense of belonging can improve students’ likelihood of persisting in college. So it’s no surprise that many colleges are preoccupied with how to foster those feelings in and around the classroom.

At the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, most students at the Hispanic-serving institution hold down jobs, says Jonikka Charlton, associate provost for student success and dean of University College. That was even truer during the remote-learning period of the pandemic. As a result it was particularly difficult for professors to engage them. “You’d see students signing on to class when they were at work,” she recalls. “When the teacher called on them they’d be like, ‘Hold on, I’m with a customer.’”

Persuading students to shift their attention back to academic work, she says, is one of the university’s major challenges. It began a professional-development program last year to help instructors create a more positive, welcoming environment in foundational courses. But, says Charlton, when it comes to building the right support structures into courses, “I feel like we’re in the infant stages of this conversation.”

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is engaged in a similar effort through the Student Experience Project, a national effort to improve graduation rates and close equity gaps in part by increasing students’ sense of belonging.

The changes that professors have made are not heavy lifts, says Lisa Slattery Walker, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of University College. They include sending a welcome message to students before the course begins, ensuring diversity among the experts they cite, and using supportive language in messages to struggling students. In courses where those changes were made, students reported an increased sense of belonging. And a higher percentage of students in revamped courses received A’s or B’s compared with earlier versions taught by the same instructor.

“It’s not about changing your core pedagogy. It’s not about changing your standards,” says Walker. “It’s really about creating the environment where students understand they do belong.”

Some campuses have decided that fostering well-being will be a yearlong, campuswide theme. The University of California at Irvine is hiring more health-care workers, ramping up advertising of wellness programs, and focusing on preventative care for everyone, says Marcelle Hayashida, associate vice chancellor for wellness, health, and counseling services. She describes the shift in approach as akin to installing hydration stations across the campus rather than telling people they need to drink more water.

“You build well-being in as a default,” she says, “rather than put it on the individual to seek help.”

One strategy is to create more student-support groups for specific needs or identities. “Everybody thinks the counseling center is where you go if you have a problem,” she says, but a psychotherapist isn’t always the best person to help. Students’ needs might be more specific. Perhaps they’re wrestling with bad eating habits, or are on academic probation, or are neurodivergent.

Some members of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public research universities, are also trying something new. To better understand what students are experiencing, they will be forming focus groups of students on each campus who meet regularly with staff members who can act on their concerns in a timely way. “Generally speaking, universities don’t have an ‘ear,’” says Bridget Burns, the alliance’s chief executive officer. “We don’t have a consistent space where the job is solely about listening to students and understanding their experience.”

Getting a clearer handle on what students need is critical, teaching and learning experts say, given that students reported high levels of anxiety and fears about being able to perform well in class.

The Center for Collegiate Mental Health, a network of college and university counseling centers, found that feelings of social anxiety jumped among students who sought help in the fall of 2021. And a report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation reported that nearly a third of students seeking bachelor’s degrees considered stopping out in the past six months. Of those, 76 percent cited emotional stress and 34 percent cited difficulty in their coursework.

‘We Cannot Wait Until Week 3′

Colleges are also building more wraparound supports, like tutoring and peer mentoring, into the classroom. And they plan to reach out to students at the first sign of trouble.

“We learned we cannot wait until Week 3,” says Elin Waring, a sociology professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York, who is involved in first-year programming. “The first week our team is going to do outreach to students who don’t show up.”

The Bronx, from where the campus draws most of its students, was particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Waring notes, and many students arrived at college underprepared. So in addition to summer bridge and learning-recovery programs, Lehman faculty are building out foundational courses such as general chemistry and programming methods.

Some students lacked lab experiences in high school, for example, so the chemistry department created a small section of the class that helped catch them up. The college will also work carefully to place students in the right sections, screen them the first week of class, and adjust as necessary. And it is embedding supplemental instruction in certain courses, rather than expecting students to seek it out through the tutoring center.

The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley plans to scale up peer-led collaborative learning, which includes an extra hour each week where students gather to apply what they learned in class, directed by paid and trained students with experience in the subject. It began in a general chemistry course, increasing pass rates by as much as 20 percent. “The great thing is that students don’t know any better,” Charlton says. “This is just the way they take chemistry”

This year peer learning will be added to subjects like math, writing, and anatomy and physiology. “It’s a large dollar amount to pay peer leaders to do that work,” she says. “But it normalizes peer collaborative learning. And the gains we’ve seen in every place we’ve tried it have been very, very significant.”

Professors’ Oxygen Masks

Students aren’t the only ones who need support heading into the fall. Faculty members exhausted from adjusting their courses to the pandemic need help gearing up for another trying semester.

Andrea Aebersold, director of faculty instructional development at the University of California at Irvine, says she has retreated from professional-development workshops and leaned into community building.

“I feel like no one has had the opportunity to really process what has happened over the last two years, so that’s going to be what needs to happen in the fall, “ she says. Her efforts will be directed at gathering faculty members for lunches, coffee hours, and walks around campus.

The university is also hiring a pedagogical-wellness specialist, a new position that will involve helping faculty members and graduate students use classroom policies and practices that support student well-being and working with the university at large to promote the well-being of faculty and graduate students.

Sue Doe, chair of the Faculty Council at Colorado State University, said consideration of faculty and staff needs has been in short supply across higher education. “We need to put on our oxygen masks first,” says Doe, who directs the university’s Center for the Study of Academic Labor. “We need to take care of the people who are on the front lines with students in great need in order to be able to continue this important work.”

Doe wants to see campuses tackle wellness in a holistic fashion, attending not just to students and faculty members but also to staff, including the lowest-paid and contingent workers. “It’s not enough to put up a link to meditation practices. It’s also not enough to provide people with exceptional resources for how to do their courses better,” she says. “The way that reads now is, ‘Yeah, now we want you to do even more.’”

Will these strategies be enough? Academic leaders concede the scope of the challenge is daunting. For the next five years colleges are going to be dealing with students who had their schooling disrupted, says Timothy Renick, executive director of the National Institute for Student Success, at Georgia State University. “It’s going to be a difficult hole to dig out of.”

Educators are aware of the limits of their powers. “Just because classes are face to face doesn’t mean that the entire world isn’t still a trash fire,” says Kevin Gannon, director of the Center for the Advancement of Faculty Excellence at Queens University of Charlotte.

The answer to the great disengagement may not be found in higher education alone, says Gannon, author of Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto. but colleges can smooth some of the roughest edges and provide students with what they need to tackle whatever lies ahead. “The key, I think, is in helping students understand that they don’t have to be just passive observers of all of this, that they do have agency and that there are ways that they themselves can contribute to a more just and sustainable future.”


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