Easing the Transition to College Amid a Pandemic
A Hunt Institute panel tackled the challenges—and opportunities—facing students, families, and institutions in the age of covid
Even in the best of times, moving from high school to college is a challenge. After 13 years of going almost automatically from one grade to the next, students are faced with a slew of choices and procedures. Applications, scholarships, financial aid, classes, dorms—the process is often dizzying, and for many, intimidating.
“The transition to higher education has always been tricky, especially for students without much of a cushion to fall back on,” said former Delaware governor Jack Markell. “Every summer, 10 to 20% of students nationally who plan to enroll in college never make it to their first day. And that’s when we’re not in the midst of a national economic and health crisis.”
Markell, a longtime advocate of college access, was one of several policymakers who participated in Governing Principals: Supporting Student Transitions in Times of Crisis, a panel hosted by the Hunt Institute on September 15. He was joined by former Ohio governor Bob Taft and Eloy Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, in an hour-long discussion about the consequences of covid-19 on students’ college plans.
The pandemic has added a different kind of urgency to the already important conversation about students attending college. Enrollment nationwide was already trending downward in 2019, and there are worries that the disruptions to K–12 schools in the spring may have caused even more students to fall off track for college.
“We all need to be concerned about losing an entire generation of students due to covid,” Markell said. “We need to get students to apply to college and apply for financial aid.”
Oakley agreed. “It’s never been more important to have clear, actionable steps to college,” he said. Given the uncertainty created by the pandemic—not only economically, but also in terms of health and safety— many students may be more comfortable, or find it more financially reasonable, to start out at community colleges. That means leaders must ensure that K–12 counselors, teachers, and principals are familiar with the process of transferring from community colleges to four-year universities.
“This is going to be critical to our most vulnerable students,” Oakley added, recalling his own path of starting at a community college and transferring to earn a bachelor’s degree. “No matter what challenge you’re facing, we will create a pathway for you right now, so that we don’t lose this generation of students.”
Clear expectations about college readiness can also make a big difference, Taft said. He pointed to a policy that guarantees students scoring above a certain level on the SAT or ACT wouldn’t have to take remedial classes at Ohio universities. “It gives students a clear goal,” he said, and that matters for building motivation in high school.
Markell pointed out that avoiding remedial classes is crucial for students to make immediate progress toward a degree. Otherwise, he said, “the chances are so much higher that they’re going to end up dropping out and end up with this double-whammy of debt but no degree.”
Markell, Taft, and Oakley also agreed that employers also have a role to play in keeping students on track. Too many students enter higher education without a specific goal in mind, which makes it easier to give up when challenges arise. Colleges partnering with employers to map out specific curricula or programs as preparation for a specific job can keep students pushing forward. Knowing there’s a career waiting for them at the end of a four-year education can make a difference in how students experience college—especially those who are concerned about the financial risk of higher education.
“Governors have an amazing opportunity to convene” and help broker those relationships between K–12, higher education, and the business community, said Oakley. “The more we can have this cross-sector dialogue, the easier it is to find solutions.”
At a time when federal policymakers are intensely divided, states still have plenty of power to make meaningful progress on college access, Markell said. Streamlining regulations, simplifying transfer processes, and setting clear guidance on college readiness can all happen at the state level if governors, legislators, and education leaders can find common ground.
“You have to approach this with a total sense of humility,” Markell said. “You’ve got to listen to people. You’ve got to be willing to try new things, and you’ve got to try and make it not political. If you really try to make every decision based on what’s in the best interest of students, you’re more likely to get it right.”