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Can Colleges Win Back the Trust of Students They Abandoned During COVID-19?

In March 2020, as the world prepared for what we now know as a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of 772,000 people worldwide with over 21.5 million cases, students all over the nation were left stranded and confused as their educational institutions “left them in the middle of the ocean and asked them to swim back to shore.”

Eliel Peterson (Courtesy photo)
Eliel Peterson (Courtesy photo)

The word deserted was the term my peers and I used to describe our feelings over how colleges and universities abandoned us during the pandemic’s initial stages. The sentiments are warranted, as many I spoke with left for spring break and received scarce and confusing emails informing them of their inability to return to campus, and if lucky, their belongings would be sent back to them.

For some, this took months, and for others, they still await news from their college about when they will receive their belongings. At some universities, students received a week’s notice to return to campus and pack up their dorm rooms, with no further information on whether their schools would be resuming in-person classes before the end of the academic year or what the next few weeks or months would look like. Thousands of students were left scrambling to afford plane tickets back home, charged with unexpected shipping fees, and forced to pay room and board fees for spaces they were no longer allowed back into; all while being expected to maintain their status as students and finish the semester out strong.

While some professors showed empathy and canceled classes, or gave students relaxing assignments like coloring or meditating, not all students experienced this wave of understanding. As some struggled to find common ground with their professors by explaining their challenges with time differences and unstable households, one thing became apparent: many colleges and universities around the U.S. had damaged their relationships with students and families they serve and would have to work very hard to repair them.

The Stakes and Stakeholders

The quintessential American college experience is unique to the United States, and each year, millions of eager teenagers buy into the experience that is beautifully packaged with promises of education, memories, character development, lifelong friendship, personal growth and exploration, and most important of all, debt.

According to Student Loan Hero, approximately 69 percent of students in the Class of 2019 took out student loans graduating with an average of $29,900 worth of both federal and private loans. It is no secret that pursuing higher education in the United States is outrageously expensive and not accessible to everyone, unlike some countries where citizens can attend universities for free or as little as $300 a semester. Yet, with the looming consequences of acquiring thousands of dollars in debt early into adulthood, there has not been a decline in college enrollment.

In fact, each year, an increasing number of students are expected to enroll in a two or four-year degree program. There are many reasons for this: family pressures and expectations, personal needs and desires, future occupation requirements, quests to broaden horizons, and many more. Higher education is atrociously expensive in this country, and it seems many have just accepted that as the way of life for Americans.

After the dorm catastrophe colleges unleashed on students and their families in March, damage control would have been most expected. This was not the case. The same emails filled with empty words that never addressed student concerns over admissions and housing continued.  Institutions declined to be transparent with students regarding their plans for the fall 2020 enrollment, refunds, and their belongings. As students bombarded college and university phone lines and inboxes with questions about tuition reduction, housing availability, mode of teaching, and COVID-19 prevention methods, the more they were met with silence. This silence forced students to form and, in some cases, strengthen community on platforms like Reddit and Quora, answering their own questions, and unfortunately, further perpetuating the cycle of chaos and confusion. No one had any definitive answers and the spread of an inglorious amount of rumors and false hope grew among the student body.

One might sympathize with colleges, citing their inability to answer questions was due to a general lack of information given the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19. Others argue that being transparent and informing the student body of their limited ability to make decisions and answer questions, rather than staying silent and ignoring the cries of students, would have been much appreciated. It is safe to say that the lack of communication stemming from institutions caused more harm than good and left a general feeling of chaos and anxiety among families and students. The last-minute decisions regarding what educational mode colleges would take his fall also worsened matters. Many students decided to assume the best and expected to return to their oncampus lifestyles come fall 2020 and proceeded to make plans in that manner. Many, includinginstitutions in North Carolina, Indiana and Michigan encouraged this thinking with email notices confirming move-in dates and dorm assignments.  These plans were reversed as little as two weeks before scheduled move-in dates or a few short weeks after the semester began.

Southern California’s Chapman University announced recently that it would begin the fall semester with online instruction. The university had been waiting on further guidance from Gov. Gavin Newsom to determine its protocol. At stake, the health of the students, but also a growing school financial loss.

These are very expensive propositions for universities. Between lost revenue and additional expenditures, we are looking at a deficit of $100 to $110 million. So that’s a significant amount of money,” Chapman President Daniele Struppa told Inside Higher Education.  

As financially taxing as the somersaulting position of university openings and sudden closings has been for schools, they have been that much more exacerbating for students — many of whom are reliant upon financial aid and administrative oversight.  

Those feelings of being deserted students expressed back in March, subsequently resurfaced this week. Students have beenabandoned once again by their schools, having purchased plane tickets, and booked non-refundable Airbnb lodging, all in preparation for their college movein, only to be left scrambling days before to cancel reservations and transportation.

One would not be remiss to say that higher education institutions have not treated their student body with the care and respect they deserve. They can even go as far as to say that many institutions have broken the trust of their student bodies. Students trust their schools to keep them safe and put their best interest ahead of capital gain but are now left wondering if their schools ever really made them a priority.

Can colleges ever regain the trust of their students, that they have so severely mistreated during a global pandemic? Many say to answer that question we must wait and see, but I don’t believe that. I think we have already seen the answer to that question. No, that trust won’t ever be regained, and an increasing number of students are beginning to see colleges for precisely what they are: businesses that engage in costly transactions.

Education, especially higher education, is part of a system that is ever so present in our society. It is a system that benefits degreeholding citizens. Although college is seen as a necessity, it is priced as a luxury. Students need colleges, and colleges need students, but this mutualism does not negate the fact that colleges cannot go around treating their student bodies as if they do not matter or as disposable commodities. Despite the broken trust, there is an expected surge in college enrollment and thousands of eager teenagers packing their bags, descending onto open campuses. But be warned, these students will not be as complacent with their administrations as their predecessors have. A monumental lesson came from the coronavirus pandemic for college students around the globe. Change is not coming, it is already here.

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