News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 29,  Number 4   //    July/August 2021

New COVID-19 Handbook from the Department of Education

On June 4, the U.S. Department of Education released the COVID-19 Handbook Volume 3: Strategies for Safe Operation and Addressing the Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education Students, Faculty, and Staff. It aims to provide higher education institutions with timely strategies for safely and equitably reopening campuses for in-person learning this fall.

The handbook’s guidance for the higher education community includes strategies for implementing CDC guidance on vaccinations and COVID-19 mitigation strategies, recommendations for supporting underserved student populations’ basic needs, and a catalog of resources available to institutions and students under the American Rescue Plan.

“Many of our nation’s postsecondary students have experienced the toughest year in their educational careers,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. “With the American Rescue Plan and key resources like Volume 3 of the COVID-19 Handbook, institutions of higher education will be able to not only protect the safety of students, educators, and staff, but also support those students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

Department of Education Launches Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse

On April 30, the U.S. Department of Education launched the Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse. President Biden’s January 21 Executive Order (E.O.) 14000 mandated the creation of this website “to enable schools and institutions of higher education to share lessons learned and best practices for opening safely during the pandemic.”

The Safer Schools and Campuses Best Practices Clearinghouse’s main goal is facilitating campus reopening across the country. According to the website, the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force partnered with the federal government to create resources and guidelines that focus on sharing “guidance for supporting students; maintaining safe and healthy environments; and ensuring teacher, faculty, and staff well-being.” Individuals with lessons learned or best practices experiences focused on ensuring equity in reopening plans are encouraged to share their stories through the Best Practices Submission page.

Opportunities for Remote Learning in a Post-Pandemic World

A majority of students prefer having the option to continue remote learning in some capacity, according to the latest Digital Learning Pulse Survey, which was released in April. The survey is the fourth in an ongoing series of surveys published by Bay View Analytics in partnership with Cengage, the Online Learning Consortium, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

Survey respondents included 772 teaching faculty, 514 academic administrators, and 1,413 students enrolled in fall 2020 and spring 2021 courses.

The survey found 73 percent of students “somewhat” agreed and 46 percent “strongly” agreed they would prefer the option to take some courses fully remote in the future. Sixty-eight percent of students indicated they would like colleges and universities to offer hybrid courses that combined in-person and online instruction. Regarding working students, the survey found students employed full-time strongly preferred online learning (56 percent) versus 36 percent of students not employed.

Like students, more than half of faculty reported “that their perceptions of online and hybrid course delivery have become more optimistic since the onset of the pandemic,” said the report. The majority of faculty gave themselves an A or B grade for courses taught during the 2020–21 academic year, which aligns with the B grade average given by students, faculty, and administrators. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of faculty also anticipate moderate to substantial changes in their teaching techniques moving forward.

The Digital Learning Pulse Survey also found faculty, students, and administrators all ranked the same top three challenges experienced by students in spring 2021. “Feelings of stress” ranked first, followed by “level of motivation” and, thirdly, “having time to do coursework.”

Overall, attitudes toward online learning have improved since the beginning of the pandemic. The survey concludes “many students, faculty, and administrators hope that the future holds more options for learning online, using technology in the classroom, and using digital resources.”

Pennsylvania Plans to Consolidate Six State Universities

On April 28, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education’s (PASSHE) board of governors approved a proposal to restructure three pairs of universities. Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education Northeast Proposed Implementation Plan Report describes this action as a “bold and innovative response to demographic, funding, and other challenges confronting higher education nationally and which are particularly acute in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

The proposal is divided into two integration plans: the west integration plan and the northeast integration plan. The west plan will consolidate California University of Pennsylvania, Clarion University, and Edinboro University. The northeast plan will consolidate Bloomsburg University, Mansfield University, and Lock Haven University. According to the report, a leadership team of the chancellor and the presidents of Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield governed the planning process that oversaw 16 working groups and 135 subgroups, which included more than 589 students, faculty, and staff.

Regarding governance, each consolidated university’s president will work with the chancellor who reports directly to the board of governors. The report also states that even though the universities will also share operations like student support services and enrollment management strategy, system officials are adamant that each university will still maintain their own name and branding.

The report states PASSHE aims to do “more together than any one institution could do alone” and “leverage our individual and collective strengths while increasing educational access and measures of success for all students.” Implementation of the PASSHE consolidation plan is slated to begin sometime between July 2021 and August 2022.

New Report on Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being

Graduate students are disproportionately underrepresented in mental health research and campus messaging despite mounting evidence they face increasing levels of anxiety and stress, according to a new report from the Jed Foundation and the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being states that its primary objective is to “create an evidence base that could meaningfully guide future research and action.” For nearly two years, researchers gathered information from graduate deans, student affairs professionals, graduate students, disciplinary society representatives, and researchers through surveys and qualitative data analyses.

Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being revealed that only 24 percent of gradate deans “indicated their campus-wide strategic plan, vision, or mission statement specifically references graduate students in the member survey.” Researchers also found that most institutions studied do not explicitly reference graduate students in their mission statements and even fewer have a graduate student mental health bill of rights. “The findings from this project will be instrumental in moving forward with efforts to promote graduate student mental health and well-being,” said Nance Roy, the chief clinical officer at the Jed Foundation in an April 29 statement.

The report’s “Statement of Principles and Commitments of Graduate Deans” offers leaders a blueprint for action by advocating accountability, transparency, and commitment to involving students in the development of mental health and well-being programming on campus. Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-Being also includes recommendations and priorities for future study beyond its current scope.

Since May, 150 institutions in the United States and Canada have endorsed the report’s framework and 2021 accountability goals. “Establishing a shared set of values and a framework of principles and commitments is just the first step toward creating more inclusive, supportive program and campus environments and ensuring more equitable access to care,” said CGS President Suzanne T. Ortega.

The Debate Over Requiring COVID-19 Vaccinations for Fall 2021

With the fall semester fast approaching,  colleges and universities are still grappling with their stance on COVID-19 vaccination requirements for students, faculty, and staff. The Chronicle of Higher Education created a map of colleges requiring varying degrees of vaccinations, and as of May 11, it includes data on 327 campuses’ vaccination policies. Private colleges are expected to have an easier time mandating vaccination because they are not governed by the same laws as public institutions.

Private liberal arts colleges such as Sarah Lawrence College, Grinnell College, and Wake Forest University will require the vaccine for students. “Getting vaccinated begins the journey toward restoring the intimate Wake Forest experience we cherish,” said an April 20 message sent to students on behalf of President Nathan O. Hatch, Provost Rogan Kersh, and Vice President of Campus Life Penny Rue.

Public institutions are split on vaccine requirements. Rutgers University was the first institution to require proof of vaccination for students planning to attend this fall, and publics like Binghamton University and Bowie State University followed suit. On the other hand, the University of Tennessee’s board of governors rejected COVID-19 vaccine requirements and Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed a law prohibiting public institutions from requiring vaccinations unless they include exemption clauses for religious beliefs or medical reasons. Florida, Montana, Texas, and Idaho legislation also prohibit public colleges from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

There are still institutions waiting to make a final call. The California State University (CSU) and University of California systems are waiting until vaccines are officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but are encouraging students to be vaccinated in the meantime. “We are announcing now so that students and employees have time to receive a vaccination,” said CSU spokeswoman Toni Molle in an April 22 statement.

While colleges typically require proof of FDA-approved vaccinations for measles, rubella, and mumps, COVID-19 vaccinations are different. COVID-19 vaccines were given emergency approval under the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to combat the public health emergency as soon as possible. This emergency-authorization designation has some institutions concerned about the legality of requiring vaccines when they have never mandated students to receive vaccinations under an EUA.

Enrollment Declines Continue

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s (NSCRC) projected findings for the Spring 2021 Final Report with Enrollment Numbers does not bode well for higher education. Undergraduate enrollment is in its steepest decline since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic (-5.9 percent this spring), based on enrollment data from 76 percent of institutions and 12.6 million students reporting to the NSCRC.

While enrollment trends vary by institution type, community colleges were hit the hardest (-11.3 percent compared to -9.5 percent last fall). Students aged 18–20 comprised the largest enrollment decline of any age group in college (-7.2 percent), with the steepest decline occurring at community colleges (-14.6 percent).

President and CEO of Compton Community College Keith Curry worries about the future of community colleges and their ability to provide if these declines continue. “We’re serving the most vulnerable populations, the ones most impacted by COVID-19, the ones most impacted by what’s happening with the economy. And we have a lot of people living in houses with essential workers,” Curry told Inside Higher Ed on April 29.

Graduate-level education programs and health care programs have weathered the enrollment effects of the pandemic better than others. NSCRC found that master’s degree and doctoral degree enrollments rose by 3.7 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively, from a year ago. Undergraduate enrollment of students majoring in computer and information sciences and support services also increased over the pandemic (4.1 percent in 2020 and 3.4 percent in 2021).

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