COVID and College: A Mismatched Pair

Student reading a book

By Maggie McGrath, Executive Director, Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland

New classes, professors, study groups, meeting new people, dining halls, roommates and dorms…

These are some of the things most of us think about when we remember our college experiences. For the high school graduating class of 2020, which enrolled in college this past fall, their introduction to college has looked more like online learning, Zoom study groups, “stay in your dorm room for classes and meals,” quarantining and COVID testing. 

College students have had a difficult time adjusting to this new way of attending college. Most colleges and universities have spent the past year delivering classes remotely. In some cases, much like a traditional class, students still log on to their online class at a specific time to hear lectures, but many courses simply have do-it-yourself formats in which professors post readings, assignments and deadlines for students to manage on their own. For some, these new formats have been helpful in providing more, often needed, flexibility; but often, students are left feeling alone.

Say Yes Cleveland was launched two years ago to help more students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District enroll in postsecondary education by providing last-dollar tuition scholarships to in-state public schools in Ohio. College Now Greater Cleveland, which administers the Say Yes Cleveland scholarship and manages the mentoring program for Say Yes scholarship recipients, has worked to do more to support students in new and different ways during this unprecedented time. Of course, some pandemic-related barriers have been easier to solve than others. One early-identified hurdle was students’ lack of technology to access online classes, but institutions quickly released funds and developed lending programs alongside local philanthropic partners to help every scholar obtain the needed technology. One College Now staff member has personally picked up laptops and driven them to student homes to ensure they received them and could participate in remote classes.

Other challenges, such as making friends, feeling unmotivated or substantial financial challenges stemming from job loss due to the pandemic – either a student’s or a parent’s – were more difficult to solve. College Now staff and mentors have helped students through very challenging, often heavy situations since the beginning of the pandemic. After a student moved back home following their campus closing last spring due to COVID, their grandparent had a stroke and their parent had to quit their job to be a full-time caregiver. The student is now providing the majority of the household income. The student reached out to College Now to request help in applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. College Now staff was able to connect the student and their family to the foodbank for assistance, encouraged them to talk to a counselor, and also researched potential support groups for family.

Many students have also faced housing insecurity amidst the pandemic. College Now staff have referred them to A Place for Me, which has been able to help find affordable housing. Another student experienced financial challenges during her fall semester following the death of her father and loss of her restaurant job due to COVID-related closures. The student reached out to her mentor, who then contacted College Now. The staff talked the student through her financial situation and connected her to on-campus grief counseling, as well as the College Now Scholarship team, who worked on a financial aid package so the student could return to school in the spring.  

Over the last six months, several themes have emerged as our scholars share their experiences about attending college during COVID:

  • Online learning is extremely difficult.
  • Campus restrictions and lack of interaction are leading to mental health challenges and feelings of isolation.
  • Financial challenges are emerging with unpaid account balances due to loss of on-campus jobs for students.
  • Communication, on all levels, is challenging.

“Boredom is at an all-time high. When I get too bored, I become sad and restless. I know social distancing and virtual interactions are enforced for good reason, however sometimes I do wish I could see people in person.”

“The pandemic makes it hard to earn money, in which I contribute to my mother’s rent so she and my little sister can stay in their home or at least move elsewhere. Academically, I have never been less motivated to do my studies because I see very little change of scenery.”

However, there are bright spots and learnings as we work to support college students in their degree completion. Colleges that have built-in student success initiatives, such as the KeyBank Scholars Program at Cleveland State University and the Tri-C Say Yes Scholars Program, have seen increased participation in virtual gatherings with their students. They found that students are looking for opportunities to connect with others, since that is not happening organically in their classes, and these programs have helped solve the “making friends” challenge. Additionally, Say Yes scholarships paired with federal CARES Act funds made a big difference in the financial picture for many students, and allowed them to stay in school.

Despite the challenges of this year, there is hope on the horizon. With an anticipated increase in COVID vaccine availability, colleges and universities are planning for in-person classes next fall. College Now and Say Yes Cleveland will continue to mentor and support CMSD students throughout all that happens over the next year and beyond, and we all look forward to restarting the journey of a more traditional college experience.

Maggie McGrath serves as the Executive Director of the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland. The Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland is a collaborative partnership among the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, 16 colleges and universities, and community organizations that seeks to remove the obstacles that prevent Cleveland youth from going to and succeeding in college. Launched in 2011 by Mayor Frank G. Jackson, the Compact’s goal is to align the efforts of member organizations to best use limited precious resources and increase the city’s number of college graduates.