By Paul Johnson, Professor, University of Southern Maine

Over the past few years, there have been numerous articles about the impact COVID-19 has had on students and their learning losses. For example, this summer, PBS Newshour featured a segment on this issue. The report discussed how, in certain areas where schools were closed and districts turned to remote learning, there was a detrimental effect on students’ learning.

While this interview focused on K-12th grade education, it also resonates in higher education. Over the past three years, a number of pandemic-related themes have been observed in the classrooms of the University of Maine System. They include the following:

  1. Students are less academically ready to attend college right after high school.
  2. Students do not always have the requisite social skills to succeed in higher education.
  3. Students are also less emotionally prepared.
  4. Students do not necessarily view college as worth their while and thus…
  5. Fewer students are attending college.

These experiences are understandable, as so many students experienced debilitating stress, uncertainty, and anxiety during the pandemic. And they know that our institutions don’t adequately support them. We must recognize this even as many of our colleagues have provided Maine students with great acts of care under impossible circumstances.

College Student Well-Being

As educators in the UMaine System, it is imperative that we consider the “post-pandemic” student body. How might we center the well-being of our students and our communities as we move forward? The trauma and grief of our students – not to mention colleagues – cannot be pushed under the rug. We cannot simply return to the “before times.” Instead, we must double down on providing the necessary resources to help students engage with their studies and colleagues and achieve sustainable mental health.

Unfortunately, there has been little strategic leadership from the UMS for democratic planning. Instead, our leaders have been intent on collapsing vital community campuses, folding programs, shrinking staff, and firing faculty members – hardly a recipe for bolstering the well-being of our students and communities. In contrast, I encourage all of us within educational enterprises, including students, teachers, faculty, staff, legislators, and the like, to demand something better. We must resist the narrative of austerity that the UMS continually uses as central to its plans. We must insist that the Maine State government adequately fund our universities. We must make well-being central to our educational endeavors. We must insist that fields like arts and humanities – not just STEM – are vital to our humanity and to the education of the whole citizen.

One thing that the pandemic has given us is renewed energy and investment in organizing against inequality and precarious futures. We can and will seek an alternative vision of higher education in which we provide our students and ourselves with a more caring, beneficent environment to teach and learn.

Academic Readiness

So, starting with academic skills. In the author’s discipline, many courses students take are sequential. The knowledge and skills they learn in each course builds upon what they have already learned. In addition, students are also required to take certain classes concurrently, because the material is relevant to each class. Yet, in order for students to master the material they already need to know how to conceptualize and apply the material. In other words, they need critical thinking skills.

Social Readiness

Secondly, social skills. Up until 2020, I was always very impressed with how the students, seemed to be extremely supportive of one another. They appeared to be genuinely concerned with one another, they socialized together. In other words, there was a great deal of social interaction. However, now students seem very reluctant to “hang out together.” They appear to come into class, and then promptly leave.

Emotional Readiness

Thirdly, this leads to the question: Are they really emotionally ready for higher education? Going to University isn’t just about getting a degree. It’s about growing as an individual and becoming more self-confident and self-assured. Students are asking themselves why they should go to university. The only guarantee is that they will four years later end up in debt with large student loans. Moreover, many students and their families understand higher education as a business, where students are charged exorbitant amounts of money to obtain a degree. And there is truth to this. Undergraduate student debt has reached crippling proportions.

What’s Next?

So, the question for all of us in Education is how we can change this narrative. For many of us who work in this profession, we are strong proponents of the system, and have all done well by the notion that education is the key to future economic and lifetime success. Yet, millions of students and families do not share this positive view.

The issue is not just Higher Education, but education in the state. We have to think differently. We need to get the brightest and smartest people from across the educational perspective and address the question of education over the next decade.