Colleges prepare for a freshman class unlike any other after a pandemic year

Apr. 9—As elementary and high schools plot strategies to combat lost learning over the pandemic year, colleges and universities across the region are preparing to support a freshman class unlike any they have ever welcomed.

Thousands of high school students poised to attend college next fall likely will be stepping out to a new community after a year of remote or hybrid learning that provided only minimal interaction with teachers and peers. Experts suspect that, alone, will put many slightly behind their peers from prior years.

But remote learning and hybrid schooling are so new there are no studies that suggest exactly what colleges and universities will see.

A recent study of pandemic learning loss among primary school students during an eight-week shutdown in the Netherlands, a small European nation that boasts equitable school funding and has a high concentration of broadband access, revealed some troubling findings. When researchers there compared student scores on national exams taken before and after the lockdown, they found students lost the equivalent of 20% of a year's learning. The study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found learning loss was most pronounced among students from disadvantaged homes.

In Western Pennsylvania, the different programs high schools offered over the last year — some offered largely in-person learning, while others consisted of mostly online learning — coupled with varying levels of student access to even the most basic resources, like laptops and Wi-Fi, suggests incoming freshmen will arrive with a wide range of preparedness.

Colleges that looked to SAT and ACT scores for indications of student preparedness found they have to look harder at their applications in a year when more and more high school seniors took advantage of test-optional applications in the face of difficulty scheduling tests.

Seton Hill University in Greensburg, said the university, which was test-optional even before the pandemic, saw the percentage of applicants who opted to forgo college entry exams increase from 2% to 26%, said Brett Freshour, the school's vice president for enrollment management.

Timothy Runge, a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania's departments of education and psychology, said many colleges know they will have to make allowances for deficits among incoming freshman.

"What we know, historically, is that pre-covid kids in general (in grades K-8) would lose about 20% of what they've learned in the prior academic year. It's called summer slide. Now, there are groups at the higher and lower range in the elementary years," Runge said. "When we're talking about high school kids matriculating into college, those numbers are not established, but we definitely expect some slide. ... It's reasonable to assume students will have lost a lot more this past academic year than ever before."

Tinukwa Boulder, an associate professor and director of innovative technologies and online learning at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education, helped design dozens of hybrid and online programs at the college level, where such courses have become more common.

But, she said, colleges may find themselves forced to deal with a number of new issues among incoming freshmen. The pandemic year forced many out of the classroom and into the online world with little preparation.

"One of the key challenges of learning loss is social and emotional wellness," Boulder said. "We've seen it among ourselves and we know the burdens families and students face are so different. We have to deal with covid losses as well as what kind of accommodations we should make to deal with learning loss."

Runge agreed. He said the pandemic is likely to exacerbate what was already an unmet need for mental health resources in schools and colleges.

Boulder said colleges are aware they will need to find ways to deal with both emotional and mental health issues as well as gaps in learning, and it may well involve some form of remediation for students.

In the past, colleges admitted some students with gaps in their education, often assigning them to remedial or developmental courses. Over the last decade, however, some questioned whether such courses simply pushed students further behind because they typically did not count as credit toward graduation.

Lynda Sukolsky, assistant dean of academic enrichment and retention at Seton Hill, said the private university does not offer remedial courses. But it does acknowledge that some students arrive with greater academic needs.

She predicted Seton Hill will be able to help fill any voids created as students navigated their final year of high school during the pandemic. The school plans to increase academic support services and ensure that students with a higher level of need are referred to programs where they are given additional personal attention.

The university, one of a handful that maintained a largely face-to-face learning environment during the pandemic, also bumped up its counseling services. And officials believe they're prepared to help incoming students over any humps created during the pandemic.

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, or via Twitter .