In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey, college faculty reported “a disconcerting level of disconnection among students, using words like ‘defeated,’ ‘exhausted’ and ‘overwhelmed.’” One professor said she “knew the pandemic was wreaking havoc on people’s lives. But she didn’t expect that its impact on learning would be so profound, even when students returned, with excitement, to campus.” Some professors attribute these difficulties to deaths in students’ families or to financial insecurity, but the truth is that colleges themselves are partly responsible for the students’ malaise. Remote learning has been a disaster. Many students, even when finally allowed to return to campus, were kept isolated in their dorms for weeks. Maintaining mask mandates and cancelling social events have also played a role.
A history professor speculates that the problem is students “who cannot separate the existential dread of Covid and now Ukraine from their daily ability to live.” The flaw with this explanation is that young people have managed to keep their noses buried in books during even more difficult periods in the past, from the Great Depression to World War II and the Cold War, along with many other crises. It’s true, however, that for years colleges have encouraged the idea that even the slightest disturbance in the news cycle, no matter how far removed from a student’s day-to-day life, is a cause for debilitating anxiety and an excuse for underperformance.
The more likely explanation for students’ struggles is that they have gotten out of the habit of being students—attending class, studying, turning in papers, and the like. It won’t be easy to restore the old discipline. Just as today’s second-graders are now having to learn the basic norms of classroom behavior that they missed during their remote classes in kindergarten and first grade, college freshmen must learn or relearn the habits that will enable them to do challenging academic work.
As Chronicle respondents reported, since the return to in-person instruction, “Far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests.” Ashley Shannon, English department chair at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, told the Chronicle that students are “by and large tragically underprepared to meet the challenges of university life—both academically and in terms of ‘adulting.’”
It should come as no surprise that the decline in standards in colleges and high schools associated with remote schooling has had such consequences. Remote learning failed to engage students. Many colleges didn’t even require students to turn on their computer cameras, reasoning that lower-income students might be embarrassed by their surroundings at home. High schools that conducted tests over Zoom found that cheating was rampant. Even conscientious parents didn’t realize until it was too late how little students were learning and how far they were falling behind.
The question for colleges: What to do now? Between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2021, enrollment dropped by 1 million students. Presidents of colleges and universities need to prove to students that the education they are receiving is worth their time and money.
If the past is any guide, colleges will try to accommodate struggling students by requiring less work from them. They will lower expectations in the name of saving students from the stress and anxiety of failing. They will offer higher grades in the name of equity. Some of the professors interviewed for the Chronicle story said that they would do more “hands on” or experiential learning because those kinds of classes get students more “engaged.” But these approaches merely pass students along, without addressing the underlying problem.
If college professors want students to act like adults again, they must teach them how. This will mean acting more paternalistically, with clear consequences when students miss classes or fail to hand in assignments. Faculty will need to reassess students’ abilities, enroll them in remedial classes if necessary, and slowly bring them back to the level that they should have reached when they were admitted.
None of it will be easy. Reinstituting real standards will require more work on the part of faculty and administrators. It will disappoint some students and anger some short-sighted parents. But after two years of drop-off in enrollment and a tight labor market that is making students question the value of higher education, colleges owe it to students to get them back on track.