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Higher Ed Should Implement Increased Support to Combat Class of 2026 Disrupted Learning

By: Lauryn Lovett, strategic communications intern

As the incoming college class of 2026 attempts to move beyond the pandemic’s tight and disruptive hold on their high school years, these students are still likely to experience unique problems. Many faced increased and sustained disrupted learning in high school, an absence of supports inside and outside of the classroom, and compounding challenges during the early days of the pandemic such as food insecurity, changes in family finances, and the need to care for younger siblings.

However, recent student survey data from Eduventures research suggests there are steps institutions can take to mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic and help students begin their postsecondary journeys with confidence and support.

Increased disrupted learning in high school, in particular, put many rising college freshmen at higher academic risk. These students recently told researchers at Eduventures they felt like inconsistent learning negatively affected their grades, leading them to feel underprepared as they enter college this fall and insecure about future success.

“It’s stressful because COVID messed up my grades,” one student said. “I would have felt more confident knowing that I got into a college because I did well, not because COVID made changes to the application process and made it more lenient.”

Students also expressed concerns beyond academics: “Having lost a year with the pandemic, I feel I’m behind with where I would be both emotionally and [in terms of] maturity.”

In fact, previous research from ACT detailed score declines suggesting pandemic disruptions did have a negative effect on students’ learning opportunities, underscoring the sentiments surfaced by the Eduventures survey. ACT’s research found that students missed out on between 2.3 and 3.4 months of learning.

Such a magnitude of loss is difficult for all students but especially challenging for those from underserved backgrounds whose barriers to basic needs were likely exacerbated during the pandemic. Students of color – specifically African American (42%), Hispanic (44%) – and students who would be the first in their family to go to college (47%) were more likely than their white (25%) and non-first-generation (29%) peers to tell ACT that they needed some form of assistance overcoming barriers regarding shelter or clothing; ways to learn school content; access to internet and technology; and transportation to resources like the grocery store, childcare, and healthcare.

Disrupted learning and compounding barriers likely contributed to recent declines in postsecondary enrollment, making unique retention efforts and supports vital for first-year college students. Recently, a survey from Youth Truth found that male, Black, and Latinx students are less likely to attend college now than before the pandemic – yet three out of four (74%) seniors in the high school graduating class of 2022 report wanting to go to college.

So, what can be done to help students succeed? As students in the college class of 2026 prepare for their first year, they will need a tremendous amount of support from postsecondary institutions. Eduventures makes several recommendations.

  • Acknowledge the elevated risk. Institutions should commit to go beyond usual retention practices and student success efforts to address the special needs of the class of 2026. The University of Iowa has several programs, such as First Gen Hawks, that help students gain employment and participate in research in order to increase retention rates.
  • Create a culture of academic support. Institutions should create programs that allow students to seek support without feeling singled out. Arkansas State University and 50 other colleges are using an app that allows students to get help whenever and wherever they need.
  • Beef up placement efforts. Institutions should place more importance on placement tests to ensure proper assessment of students free from grade inflation. Queensborough Community College uses first-year placement exams to assess students’ abilities, and, if a student is struggling, they can receive support.
  • Plan for remediation. Institutions should understand that students could be missing key information in core subjects and plan efforts to resolve this. Roxbury Community College has had much success with its co-requisite remediation model allowing students to gain credit for a course while also taking a secondary course designed to support them.
  • Use orientation and first-year experience as the vehicle to address these needs. Institutions should realize that students not only suffered from months of disrupted learning, but also fewer social connections and declined emotional health, and these experiences should be remedied. American University has a first-year experience that provides students with resources, support, and a community to rely on during their transition to college.

Students in the class of 2026 have overcome many obstacles in the college-going process and will inevitably encounter challenges as they make their way to and through their postsecondary experiences. ACT is committed to continuing to provide valuable insights to help the education community identify and address their unique needs.