Besides its economic and social disruptions, COVID-19 appears to have shifted the perception about the importance and value of education at least partially off its foundation.
Of course, some foundation-rattling was already underway; the pandemic only intensified it. About one-third of students quit college before their sophomore year, with 40 percent of students dropping out each year. Plus, U.S. college enrollment is down nearly 1 million from its peak of 20.6 million in 2010. Financial pressure plays a significant role, but surveys and broad anecdotal evidence suggest the pandemic also exacerbated the emotional and social pressures bearing down on students.
Dropout and graduation rates can be fuzzy gauges of student success because:
- Many students transfer to other schools, making their performance hard to track.
- More than a third of them attend only part-time, further complicating tracking.
- Many students who dropout eventually re-enroll in the same or different schools, often taking six or more years to earn a degree.
Still, based on student and educator survey responses, today’s students are less emotionally, socially, and intellectually engaged in their education.
Undoubtedly, existing financial pressures (made worse by the pandemic’s economic fallout) have had a broad impact. Poor grades are also a prominent factor in deciding to leave school. However, falling scores later in one’s college career can signal intellectual disillusionment with (and emotional disengagement from) the educational process itself.
For many, quitting is not the wisest economic response after investing so much time and money. The further along in one’s studies a student drops out, the more significant the accumulated debt and the more difficult it is to pay it off. On average, adults with some college but no degree earn $1 less per hour than those with a two-year associate degree and $5 less an hour than those with a bachelor’s. That averages $21,000 less annual pay for college dropouts than for those with a four-year degree. Yet many choose that path, at least partly due to their great disaffection with the education process.
Declining student engagement: As big a problem as rising costs
For many reasons, educators say that many students today are not as fully engaged in their education process as previous generations. Education finance reform would ease some of the pressure, but that’s only one challenge in getting students to re-engage. Educators, therefore, must find new approaches to teaching that will spark the level of engagement needed to see them through to college completion and graduation.
Whether attending class in-person or online, many of today’s students ask, “Why am I doing this? I’m just watching a screen – or an impersonal lecturer in front of a huge class. They don’t know me and certainly don’t really care about me or my education. Why put myself through this if I’m not going to get a good experience from it?”