It was early March, and Autumn Shearer had finally hit her stride.
“I feel like I struggled my first semester, and then my second semester, I was really ready,” Shearer said.
Her promising second act came to an abrupt end. In a matter of weeks, the coronavirus swept through the U.S., prompting an unprecedented wave of closures and cancellations across colleges and universities in all 50 states.
Now millions of other students across the country are asking, like Shearer, “Where do we go from here?” These students and their families, whether they are incoming freshman or returning students, are grappling with the fact that their fall semester may also look nothing like they planned for – if it happens at all. As more and more schools contemplate an online/in-person hybrid or delayed semester, it is unclear how many students will accept any such reality; students’ whispers of gap years are becoming increasingly louder.
What is clear is that these students and their families are desperate for information, and may not be relying on the communications channels that colleges & universities would expect: Several of the students we spoke to for this piece said they are relying largely on emails from their colleges & universities – and not social media – as the primary and preferred communication channel from schools.
And, while not all comms shops are created equal, students’ satisfaction with the updates they are receiving during the Covid-19 crisis created a broad spectrum from satisfaction to strong dissatisfaction.
The Messages That Matter
Students and families are doing their best to triangulate their plans for the fall based on news reports, information from official sources and, of course, updates from the colleges and universities they are hoping to attend. But many students still have residual questions about the current semester.
Initial communications regarding changes to academic schedules, facility closures and refund disbursements ran the gamut of quality and timeliness. And of all the channels schools use to communicate with their students, email was the most commonly cited one for receiving important information and updates about universities’ responses to Covid-19 among the students we spoke to.
Shearer said that the messages she received from her school were satisfactory. “I think they did a really good job of giving information,” she said of Bloomsburg University. Those email communications were also complemented by robocalls with information pertaining to their individual accounts.
Some 100 miles south, Rhaelynn Zito, a sophomore nursing major at York College, has been frustrated with the communications she has received. According to Zito, the school sent an email a week prior to its official closure announcement and posted an update on its website as late as March 11, stating that it planned to continue operations. Within 48 hours, York College suspended in-person classes, effective March 13. Of course, every school was working fast and furious to keep up with the exponentially escalating level of concern, but Zito expected clearer communication.
“I definitely think it could have been better,” Zito said of the information she received. Now, she said, the school sends email updates every two weeks, they don’t always have the information Zito is looking for – like updates on refunds, which frustrates Zito.
“I’m not getting the education I’m paying for.” – Rhaelynn Zito, sophomore at York College
Seth Chestnut, an Ohio native and freshman at The University of Vermont, said that his school did an excellent job communicating changes to students and that he continues to receive timely messages via email regarding the school’s plans. Emails of particular importance are denoted with red exclamation marks in the subject line, which Chestnut appreciates.
One medium was surprisingly absent in talks about school communication: social media. Studies show that Generation Z, the demographic most of today’s college students fall into, uses social media to a staggering degree. An estimated 73 percent of adults age 18-23 use Instagram, 63 percent use Snapchat, and 62 percent use Facebook on a regular basis. And yet, none of the students that Volt spoke to for this story said that they were turning to social media to get the vital updates they are looking for. Their anecdotal evidence jibes with a figure that Michael Stoner shared at the recent CUPRAP 2020 conference: that 92 percent of prospective Gen Z students turn to a school’s website, not social media, when deciding where to attend college.
If that’s the case, parents may be finding social media more useful for updates and communication than their kids are. Zoe Fogarty, mother of an incoming freshman at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, finds herself communicating on Facebook forums with other St. Andrew’s parents, who often circulate information from the school’s website into the group. Based on what she’s learned so far, Fogarty feels reassured that the school will take the necessary actions to ensure the health and safety of its U.S. student population in these uncertain times.
Will Students Stay for Online Courses?
The rise and ubiquity of video conferencing technologies like Zoom and Google Hangouts have made remote learning possible, but Shearer said it’s far from ideal. “Now that I have to do it online, my grades completely dropped once I got home.”
For Zito, the online learning experience isn’t meeting her expectations, saying, “I’m not getting the education I’m paying for.”
York College, in south-central Pennsylvania, is a popular choice for many in the region with medical career aspirations, given its close proximity to several major hospitals and health care facilities. For Zito, clinical rotations were just around the corner in her curriculum. Now, she said, the school is floating the idea of virtual clinicals in the fall – a proposition that doesn’t entice her at all.
“If I would drop, I would have to wait a year to start clinicals, and the thought has crossed my mind to do the gap year and suck it up, and work for a year, and start clinicals in a year if we have to do them virtually,” she said.
Zito may hardly be alone if she indeed takes a year off of school.
“In our hearts, we would have this vision of our children moving into school, and having their orientation, and everybody being together, so… I would want to make sure he wouldn’t miss out on those things.” – Zoe Fogarty, mother of an incoming freshman at St. Andrews
Currently, about 40,000 students take a gap year between high school graduation and college entrance, according to the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that accredits gap years. Right now, nearly 17 percent of graduating high school seniors report are ‘near the point of giving up’ on attending a four-year college this fall, according to a survey of 1,171. There were 2.88 million first-time freshmen that enrolled in college in the fall of 2017 (the last year of complete and available data), 1.87 of whom were enrolled in four-year institutions. If those survey figures hold true, that could mean some 300,000 students will delay enrollment to four-year institutions for the 2020-21 academic year.
A mass delayed entrance or return of students in the fall could be disastrous for schools already walking a financial tightrope due to steady enrollment declines in recent years.
Though the possibility of at least a partially virtual school year looms, not all are keen on the idea of paying full tuition to take classes at home. Chestnut, for instance, learned – through email, again – that the University of Vermont has created a planning committee tasked with transitioning students back to campus in the fall, which is reassuring to Chestnut, since the last thing he wants to do is stay at home and take online classes next semester. He said he would consider taking a semester off rather than losing time on campus with his professors and friends.
Not all students feel that way. Some are more open to online classes, and for some, the importance of getting a degree is enough that exactly how they get it doesn’t matter as much.
Maddy Trana, for instance, is a junior psychology major at Towson University in Maryland. She lives off-campus and was commuting an hour each way for classes and balancing her studies with a retail job – at least she was, until the outlet mall where she worked shut down due to the pandemic. So, she was used to a more independent lifestyle that wasn’t centered around on-campus life and activities.
Trana said it can be difficult to remain focused at home with “a dog and siblings running around making noise,” but she finds it helpful to do practical things like complete her work in class order to maintain a semblance of normalcy in her day. Determined to graduate on time, Trana said she’s committed to staying at Towson next year, whether that means staying at home for online classes or making the hour-long commute to and from campus multiple days a week.
Figuring Out the Future
Colleges and universities have dedicated large swaths of their digital marketing budgets to amassing followers, creating robust advertising campaigns, and winning over prospective students with carefully curated feeds. But as the students we spoke with shared, it seems that students rely on email for the information they need the most. If the data support that observation, will schools alter their communications strategies in the future?
As for what happens this fall, that’s still anyone’s guess.
The situation in the UK is different from that in the U.S., but St. Andrews is already planning on offering a dual semester in the fall, with in-person classes for those who can attend and online classes for those who are unable to come to campus, which could include Fogarty’s son, if United States’ travel restrictions were to extend to the United Kingdom.
She echoes the concerns shared by the students Volt interviewed.
“In our hearts, we would have this vision of our children moving into school, and having their orientation, and everybody being together, so this would be kind of a non-traditional start. So I guess I would want to make sure he wouldn’t miss out on those things,” she said. “You want them to ‘a normal college experience.’”
As of now, millions of students and their families are waiting patiently to see if they’ll get that chance.