But are special events and food trucks enough? Or do campuses have to adapt policies and practices for the Class of COVID-19?
Freshmen began college in the fall of 2020 after crushing losses — canceled proms, senior assemblies, end-of-year sports banquets and graduation ceremonies. Then, those teens spent their first college year in front of computer screens, many never seeing their professors face-to-face or joining a club that met in person.
The concern is that the first-year experience may have been so desultory and disillusioning that students won’t return. In late April, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recorded a 5.9% drop in spring enrollment compared to the same time last year. According to the center, “Students aged 18-20, comprising over 40% of all undergraduates, saw the largest enrollment decline of any age group this spring (-7.2%), with the steepest drop occurring at community colleges (-14.6%).”
“We can’t take these continuing students for granted. Even if they’re registered for the upcoming semester, we can’t make assumptions,” said Bradley, citing her own university’s decision to call rising sophomores to ask about their return plans and their experiences.
Freshman year — and the survival skills acquired — can influence student success and competition. The initial year is a key transition period where young people figure out how to become independent learners and navigate campuses that provide lots of opportunities and resources, if students know how to access them.
Given that freshmen didn’t have a chance to develop those skills — such as how to live communally in dorms, build a friend network, keep focus in a 150-person lecture hall, secure academic help — what should colleges be doing for them?
Florida-based independent college counselor Lisa Sohmer said professors, especially those who don’t teach freshmen, will have to understand the sophomores in their classes this fall have never fully been freshmen and may need more guidance than “My office hours are Tuesday and Thursday from 2 to 4.”
“I am telling parents that I expect colleges will continue to have an acute awareness of what kids are going through and provide the kinds of support that kids need to make the transition they all expected to make a year ago,” said Sohmer, who works with students around the country and abroad. “These kids had almost a national gap year where they were not in college and where they were not in high school, either, in any normal way. Colleges are doing more wellness and awareness training for their faculty, staff and dorm leaders so they will know what to be looking for.”
Tina Fernandez, executive director of Achieve Atlanta, which works to ensure that more Atlanta students go to college and earn a degree, said it will take a concerted effort by campuses to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 on many students. “Honestly, if I were leading a college or university, I would take the first two weeks and think about putting students in groups. I would gather all of the mental health resources on campus and in the community and spend some time acknowledging what just happened, grieving some of the loss and getting a sense of what student needs are,” Fernandez said.
“It has been really difficult this year for a lot of legitimate reasons,” she said. For example, even tracking down basic information about financial aid became harder after college offices closed and telephone queries went to voicemail with promises, not always kept, of quick callbacks. “Students were not on campus. When you are on campus, there is somebody sitting at the front desk who can help even if you don’t know what question to ask or, if you know you have a problem, but don’t know the office you are supposed to call,” she said.
About to join Marietta City Schools as a college adviser, Milly Gorman is a former director of new student orientation at the University of Georgia. That first year on campus is when students get involved in activities and develop community through their dorms and dining halls, she said.
“What they probably missed is developing those bonds and relationships and learning more people skills,” Gorman said. “This year could be considered a 13th grade, if you will, where they were in college but still at home. They are sophomores in name but freshmen in terms of getting used to the campus, finding buildings, learning the shortcuts and developing self-advocacy.”
Gorman said the pandemic may yield a few silver linings, including second-year students returning with more enthusiasm about finally being on an active and open campus. “The energy of a campus is so infectious, so exciting,” she said. “I also think some students have now realized their learning style. They may know they need to be in front of a professor. Others may have realized they like digital learning because they can work at their own pace and in comfortable clothing and now really want a hybrid situation.”
Sohmer said she expects the freshman class of COVID-19 to find its way, explaining, “Every college freshman in the fall of 2020 went through the same kind of problem to various degrees, and there is a strength of community in that. I am optimistic about what will happen with these students. The colleges are just as excited to have these kids back as the kids are excited to be on campus.”