Pandemic Learning Loss and Student Success
After all the tumult of COVID, the college class of 2026 is approaching enrollment. How will they fare? For these students, the last two years of pandemic learning in high school were chaotic and disrupted. Beyond the loss of social connections and extracurriculars, recent data also estimates academic learning losses. Given these challenges, should we expect them to transition into college life just as students have in the past? Probably not.
Many of these students will need a helping hand. Colleges should prepare for more robust retention and student success efforts as the class of 2026 arrives on campus.
ACT data shows that during the pandemic students have sustained small but significant learning losses. Prior ACT research has estimated the relationship between time in the classroom and ACT scores (e.g., an additional month of schooling increases the English ACT score by .31). The pandemic has reduced the amount of time students have spent in the classroom and pandemic decreases in ACT scores can be expressed in comparable months of learning loss.
Figure 1 details these losses for 11th grade students who took the ACT in the spring of 2021 (the college class of 2026).
These students are estimated to be behind between 2.3 and 3.4 months depending on the subject area tested. Students are farthest behind in reading (3.4) and Math (3.3). They are 3.1 months behind in science and 2.3 months behind in English.
The question posed in ACT’s research is whether schools could make up this learning gap as instruction moved back to in-person this past year. Additionally, this research necessarily focused on schools that were able to administer the ACT in the classroom during the pandemic. It’s likely that we are looking at students in districts that delivered more in-person instruction than other districts that were more virtual. It’s possible the learning losses could be increased for students in these more virtual school environments.
The indication, however, is that there is significant academic risk for first-year college students enrolling this year. They are likely to be a little bit behind academically.
Students, too, have voiced concern about their preparedness for college. Open-ended responses from the Eduventures Applier Survey tell us more about how students are feeling on this topic:
“Having lost a year with the pandemic I feel I’m behind with where I would be both emotionally and maturity.”
“It’s stressful because COVID messed up my grades. I would have felt more confident knowing that I got into a college because I did well, not because COVID made changes to the application process and made it more lenient. That’s a good thing but it doesn’t make me feel good about my own academic standing. In a way I feel less capable.”
“[Applying to college is] overwhelming because due to online learning my grades dropped. Another thing that is upsetting is due to being out of school, when taking the ACT I felt dumb.
“Many of my peers and I feel as though we aren’t ready at all for college. We have the mentality of a sophomore, which was when the pandemic first hit. Our school counselors are trying their best to help and prepare us, but I don’t think they realize that the senior class just isn’t in the right headspace or mindset to even think about college.”
“It feels as though my dreams are diluted and I’ve fallen behind in trying to reach my goals. I’m nervous regarding my eligibility to get into some colleges due to my grades during distant learning, and I don’t feel ready or prepared to apply to colleges despite the assertion that I have to.”
Source: Eduventures 2021 Applier Survey
These student comments about the challenges of applying to colleges during COVID reveal that there is much more to the lack of preparation than subject-related learning loss. Behind those learning losses are deficits in maturity and self-efficacy that students will need to be successful in college.
For this class of incoming first-year students, there is certainly elevated academic, social, mental health, and financial risk. Overall attrition may increase without significant attention from institutions. Additionally, the patterns of risk for this class of students might look different than risk patterns that institutions have typically seen pre-pandemic; more students are at risk for a broader set of reasons. Institutions are already building more extensive onboarding of students and rethinking orientation to address the situation.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to approach concerns about learning loss with a student-centered perspective. The losses may have a critical impact on your institution, but they have the greatest impact on the students themselves. The last thing an institution would want to do is to highlight the potential deficits of incoming students and further reduce students’ sense of self-efficacy.
Rather than labeling the class of 2026 as behind and in need of salvaging, let’s understand our role in rebuilding confidence and connections to put these students on the path to success. What then are the key elements necessary to get the class of 2026 off to a great start?
- Acknowledge the elevated risk. Make an institutional commitment to go beyond your tried-and-true retention and student success efforts to address the special needs of the class of 2026.
- Create a culture of academic support. Create an environment in which participation in academic support is an expected activity for all students. With many students feeling less confident about their academic preparation, this is in the best interest of the institution. Not all students will need it, but those who do won’t feel singled out if it’s expected for all.
- Beef up placement efforts. Pandemic grade inflation may be obscuring students’ true abilities in critical areas. Ensure placement testing is utilized to assess the skills of students entering key courses.
- Plan for remediation. Build a plan for more robust remediation in key areas where learning losses are most likely to arise.
- Use orientation and first-year experience as the vehicle to address these needs. Use orientation and first-year programming to rebuild social connections, emotional health, and academic self-efficacy. Students have had a fragmented and difficult experience in the last two years, and this is the place to introduce students to the culture of support that they will need to be successful.
This incoming class of first-year students has overcome many challenges just to get to college. Help them ease their worries about being left behind by the pandemic.
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