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COVID-19 and Reconnecting Disrupted Learners to Education

COVID-19 and Reconnecting Disrupted Learners to Education

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In a Strada Education Network article, “What Will Reconnect Disrupted Learners to Education?,” Paul Fain writes that the number of learners whose education was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago but who intended to return to education within six months has decreased.

Last year, Strada Education Network’s Public Viewpoint survey reported that approximately 90% of people who disrupted their education plans because of the pandemic enrolled or intended to enroll within six months. One year later, that percentage has declined 20 points to 70%.

Strada Education Network recently hosted a webinar about their research. Joining Strada’s director of research Andrew Hanson were Linda Garcia, executive director of the University of Texas Center for Community College Student Engagement and Su Jin Gatlin Jex, executive director of California Competes.

During the Strada discussion, Andrew Hanson stated that the decrease in students planning to return to college is a national crisis since forgoing college completion is a walk away from the path to upward mobility, career advancements, the realization of potential, and achievement of lifelong goals.

Ms. Garcia added that the UT Center had uncovered similar findings about the impact of the pandemic on prospective college students. In their study, one-third of learners had changed their education plans. In addition, many students are struggling with barriers such as not being able to afford childcare or college.

The Strada panelists agreed to three important steps that college leaders can take to improve student retention. These steps are:

  • Customize wraparound supports and guidance to meet students where they are.
  • Prioritize more resources for faculty member to help students reconnect. This effort should include part-time faculty members.
  • Harness the potential of the moment. The Biden administration intends to fund a free community college education for all. In addition, some states are flush with cash and intend to increase college funding as well. Colleges should take advantage of funding today as the funding could disappear later.

None of these findings are surprising to me. Having studied the college attendance and persistence patterns of working adult students studying online for the past two decades, there are myriad reasons why students drop out. While the majority of students probably fall within 6-10 similar reasons for taking a break from college, the list of overall explanations is very long.

That’s why it’s important to customize wraparound supports and guidance for each student versus providing a standardized response. At American Public University System (APUS), we refer to this support as being student-centric. That shift is not easy for institutions that look at their student body as a homogenous group or that focus on prescriptive solutions without looking at individual student needs.

Involving all faculty members in the process of engaging students is vital. While this solution may seem self-evident, many institutions assign student engagement responsibilities to staff instead of faculty.

Lastly, in a year when federal funding for higher education may be at an all-time high, it makes sense that institutions should use the money to focus on improving student persistence. More students persisting in their education equal more students who are graduating. More students graduating equals more students sharing their positive experiences with potential students. Increasing the potential student pool during a period when the demographics are declining is a positive.

I like all of these recommendations. The real question is how many institutions will follow through and enact all three recommendations.

My guess is that less than half of those higher ed institutions will do so. Change in higher education comes slowly. Those who pivot quickly will likely prevail.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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