Programs address fallout from remote learning for college students

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Southern NH University students at the Wolak Learning Center, where tutoring, mentoring and peer educator training is offered. Courtesy photo

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Eleven high school graduates who’d spent much of their senior year taking online classes during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic gathered as a group of strangers as the semester started last fall at Great Bay Community College.

They had enrolled as the inaugural class of an innovative program called Soar to Success, serving both the Portsmouth and Rochester campuses. The five-day, 25-hour bootcamp, which continues this fall with 20 students, was designed specifically to address COVID-related concerns.

“We developed it last year as we were hearing the reports coming out of high schools about students who were experiencing failure to launch, reports of students who were uninspired and had low confidence in their academic skills,” says Lisa McCurley, vice president of academic affairs for Great Bay. “We had similar programs a number of years ago, but this was specifically designed in response to the pandemic.”

With little more than $3,000 in COVID-19 relief funds, the school set up facilities and recruited faculty to support and engage traditional college-age students who graduated in 2020 or 2021 with a program focusing on academics, team building and “college essentials” like financial literacy.

“We specifically targeted the program to seniors who struggled socially or academically in their last year of high school,” says Brian Scott, director of athletics and student engagement at Great Bay, who was also involved in the program.

“We checked in on all the students who participated after the first semester. There were some who did well academically and there were some we lost. But even if they didn’t continue with college, they still felt connected to this group, and that was one of our goals. Regardless of the academic piece, we are looking to create some social bonds among students coming out of local high schools.”

The goals of Soar to Success, in both academic and social terms, reflect concerns about a trend that has been difficult to document statistically, but that is intuitively and anecdotally understood by educators across the spectrum. Several months of online learning have been a setback academically and socially for many students at all grade levels.

Data Hard to Come By

There have been many studies documenting this trend at the K-12 level, but university and college data are harder to come by.

In May, researchers from the Military Academy at West Point revealed the results of a controlled study in which economics professors randomly assigned students to in-person or online classes. The same instructors taught one online and one in-person economics class each, and all materials, exams and assignments were otherwise identical, according to the study authors.

They determined that the negative effect of online learning was widespread but most severe among students with lower academic ability. In a follow-up survey, online students said they had trouble concentrating on their coursework and felt less connected to their peers.

“College students pushed online may be less prepared for future follow-on classes, their GPAs may be lower, course completion may suffer, and overall learning may have declined relative to in-person cohorts in previous years,” according to the study authors.

Leaders of post-secondary education programs in NH vary in their assessment of the effect of remote learning on academic success, but they are unanimous in citing its social-emotional effect on students emerging from virtual isolation.

“We have some students who, if they were in person, would have been far more successful academically,” says Scott at Great Bay. “We do what we can to combat that by encouraging them and keeping them on task. Remote learning is very difficult for some students.”

Mental Health Concerns

At the University of NH, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Wayne Jones Jr. says academic performance did not suffer significantly from the three months of remote instruction in the spring of 2020. The more significant effect of COVID-19 at UNH has been in the mental health of the student body, he says.

“We paid close attention to student performance as they came in from having had a COVID senior (high school) year. What we find is that average GPA of high school students coming to UNH has gone up a little bit and the average GPA at the end of their freshman year was similar to our other classes. So we did not see a significant decrease in their performance in that sense,” says Jones.

“That being said, I think all students have been demonstrating and reporting more stress and more mental health issues.

This has been a national phenomenon, and we certainly saw that at UNH as well and have had to add resources to provide that support.”

A recent analysis by the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds estimated that almost half of college students had a psychiatric disorder in the past year.

“UNH certainly hasn’t experienced that number of acute cases. It has increased, but not that much,” says Jones. “Many of those studies point out that the growing need for mental health supports started before COVID. So, in many ways, COVID was a catalyst for a trend that had already started in higher education.”

UNH responded by adding more counseling services and a 24/7 mental health hotline. “Those are resources that weren’t in place five or 10 years ago, and we’ve had to add them,” says Jones.

Students participating in the Soar to Success program at Great Bay Community College. Courtesy photo

Demand for Services

University System student board members working with faculty and administrators recently completed an analysis of mental health service requests at UNH, Keene State and Plymouth State. According to their presentation to the System Board of Trustees in August, “Dialogue was initiated due to a common theme among students and student representatives noticing a decline in student well-being and mental health.”

At UNH, the Department of Psychological and Counseling Services reported 1,351 clients in 2018-2019, the last pre-COVID academic year. From August of 2021 to June of 2022, that number jumped to 1,829, a 35% increase in demand for services at a time of shrinking staff.

The numbers may vary, but the experience is common across schools of all sizes. Jenne Powers, director of the Academic Resource Center at St. Anselm College, says students were back on campus by the fall of 2020, with no obvious impact on academic readiness. But as with other schools, mental health emerged as a growing issue.

“We have definitely seen an increase in the need for mental health services, particularly among this year’s first-year class but also among the student population as a whole,” she says.

Offering More Support

At Southern NH University, Lynn Murray-Chandler, assistant vice president of learner engagement and academic innovation, agrees that “social-emotional” issues are among the major concerns.

“The two areas we have seen the most need for extra support for incoming classes are around math preparation and social-emotional effects of the pandemic,” she says. “At SNHU, we are working to offer more supports, including precalculus on campus for the first time and an engineering math class to help students apply math concepts while they learn engineering principles. We are also planning events meant to build community in the classroom and across our SNHU community to support and foster relationship building, to make it more likely students will seek the supports they need to
be successful.”

Despite the lack of hard data on the effect of the COVID year on NH college students, the NH Community College System’s Chancellor Mark Rubinstein says, “We’d be kidding ourselves to think it’s business as usual at colleges and universities throughout the state.”

“It would not surprise me that some students suffered more than others,” he says. “Many of us in higher education may have patted ourselves on the back for the transition to remote learning, and there’s something to be said for that versus stopping entirely. But I think we’d be mistaken to believe this was a perfect transition and a perfect solution.”

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Dave Solomon

Dave Solomon is a freelance reporter.