The Pandemic Generation Goes to College. It was not easy.

The Pandemic Generation Goes to College. It was not easy.

Jazeba Ahmad was a junior in high school when Covid-19 hit and his math education faltered. Ms. Ahmad was enrolled in an international baccalaureate math class designed to provide a strong foundation in areas such as algebra, geometry, statistics and calculus.

But his high school in Columbus, Ohio, made a rocky transition to remote learning, he said, and soon, math classes were passing with little to show for them. From her freshman year at Columbus State Community College, Ms. Ahmad, 19, found herself in something she should have mastered — algebra.

“I missed a lot in those two years,” Ms. Ahmad said. “If I had learned those skills in high school, I feel like I would be better equipped to do well in that class.”

Colleges are now educating their first waves of students who experienced a pandemic learning loss in high school. What they see is sobering, especially because the the latest disappointing results from the national exam fourth- and eighth-graders suggested they could face year after year incoming students struggling to catch up. In nearly every state, there were significant declines in eighth-grade math, and most states also showed a decline in reading for fourth- and eighth-graders.

In interviews across the country, students discussed how their disjointed high school experiences dragged them into their early college years; some teachers were talking about how grades are going down, as well as standards. Many students are tentative and anxious.

For many low-income students and students of color, who have historically faced greater obstacles to earning a degree, the classes seem to be much more difficult and graduating thus harder.

As is, in many states, high school graduation rates have dropped for the class of 2021. And high school enrollment is down 4.2 percent since 2020, according to preliminary data recently released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The flurry of problems “all show that we have a crisis,” said Stanley Litow, a visiting professor of public policy at Duke University and a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools.

It’s especially bad, he said, for low-income students and students of color. “The population for which we are most interested in doing the most seems to be moving in the wrong direction,” he said.

Benedict College, a historically Black university in Columbia, SC, is facing that reality. First-year enrollment there, which typically hovers around 700 students, was cut in half in the fall of 2020 and rebounded to just under 600 last fall, university President Roslyn Clark said. Arts. But this term, administrators were surprised to see an enrollment of only 378, which Dr. Artis attributed to student concerns about the economy.

Most of the students were high school seniors when Covid hit, and they came in with lower ACT scores than in previous years. The college saw “significant remedial needs” in math, Dr. Artis said.

“We’re now two and a half weeks into midterms, and our grades tell the story: Students are struggling in math,” he said.

In math departments across the country, teachers and administrators say more students need more support. Teachers talked about reducing their programs and lowering their expectations.

Lee DeVille, a math professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he “picked” a class last spring to focus on the basics. It pained him, he said, to cut out some “beautiful math,” but it seemed necessary.

They came with a little less, and they probably came with a little less,” he said.

At Texas A&M University, some math classes have seen higher rates of D’s, F’s, and even more withdrawals, over the course of the pandemic. The problems were particularly bad for first-year students, said Paulo Lima-Filho, the executive director of the university’s mathematics learning center, which provides tutoring.

Students of all kinds seem to lack strong fundamental math skills and rigorous study habits, he said. And some students had a wrong understanding of basic concepts, which particularly worried him.

“This gap will propagate through the generation of the cohort,” said Dr. Lima-Filho. “Colleges must make an additional effort to bridge this gap.”

Nick Sullivan, a sophomore at A&M, took a hybrid calculus course at his high school in Belton, Texas. The students learned primarily from videos, with additional in-person instruction, a style that “didn’t work for me,” he said.

Still, Mr. Sullivan had hoped last year that the class would give him an edge in college calculus. But he found that almost nothing took off, he said, and that “I was really thinking the wrong things.”

An engaging teacher and help from the math center helped him make up for lost time, he said, and he is now majoring in nuclear engineering.

In university writing and literature courses, teachers say they have seen fewer problems with student preparation. But many pointed to other concerns, including higher levels of anxiety and a reduced willingness to find support.

At Auburn University’s writing center, first-year students have historically made up about 30 percent of those seeking help — “the largest constituency we’ve served,” said Christopher Basgier, director of university writing. .

That dropped to 20 percent. “It could be that because they’ve spent more time learning from home, they’re not used to going out and looking for that kind of extra help,” he said.

The big risk for students is that it will take longer, and perhaps more money, to earn a degree – or not obtain it at all.

At Benedict, which serves many low-income, first-generation students, the pandemic has made it even more difficult to ensure students graduate on time, Dr. Artis said. The college’s six-year graduation rate in 2021-22 was 25 percent, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The college has “doubled down” on providing resources to students who are considering withdrawing from classes, he said. And despite the low graduation rates, he said the college has just kept pushing forward.

“We have commitments to populations for which disenfranchisement is common,” said Dr. Artis. “We have always accepted this kind of burden, despite the black eye that everyone seems to give us for our inability to push the child – whose experience has been very traditional – out in a traditional four-year frame.

The long tail of the pandemic can also be felt in the mental health of teenagers, for whom the rates of anxiety, depression and suicide have. increased.

Dr. Artis said he has observed a shift among students who have spent the last few years of their high school education primarily online. Those students seem more reserved, he said, less eager to engage in large group activities. The college football team is undefeated for the first time in its history, but student attendance at games is down.

“We’ve had students — for the first time in my 10 years as university president — say to me, ‘Are we going to attend parties?'” he said. “There’s almost an anxiety associated with going back into a social environment “.

At the University of Oregon, many students have a “level of apathy” toward college, said Amy Hughes-Giard, an assistant vice provost focused on supporting new students.

“They want to connect, but they’re not sure,” he said.

Clutch Anderson was a first-year student at the University of Oregon when Covid-19 torpedoed his college experience. Mr Anderson, 21, an art and technology major, said he found it difficult to establish routines. During his sophomore year, his classes were remote and he barely left his off-campus apartment. He fell into a depression.

“I had no motivation and couldn’t do anything in my classes,” she said. Now as a senior, he added, “I’m still trying to get out of that space.”

Mr Hughes-Giard said the university was trying to instill a sense of belonging by staging events and creating places to relax. But for the students who are further behind, she worries that the effects of the pandemic will not spread quickly. Even today, they often have other burdens, such as working extra jobs to feed themselves and support their families.

“We’re always trying to reduce that gap,” he said. “But it feels like hitting the open mouth of the river again.”

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