Leaders fear for student mental health as Covid hits US campuses

While tallying massive financial harm, campus presidents list student well-being as chief priority

October 8, 2020
Mental health students
Source: iStock

Most US universities are cutting staff, struggling to provide regular Covid testing and deeply concerned about the mental health of their students, a national survey of institutional presidents has found.

The tally by the American Council on Education, the main US higher education membership group, portrays an atmosphere of great stress across academia, especially among those institutions and students least equipped to cope.

Nearly 300 college and university presidents participated in the survey, with the largest share – 53 per cent – listing the mental health of their students as a top concern.

Even though most US universities have moved to online formats, said Shirley Collado, president of Ithaca College in New York, it is a mistake to believe that such a shift makes mental health services any less necessary.

Addressing a round-table gathering of college presidents separate from the ACE survey, Professor Collado was among several describing the emotional difficulties facing both students and staff during the pandemic.

Others included Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College. His small, private Dallas institution serves a large share of low-income students. It is teaching online this autumn, and has seen rising demand for mental health services.

“Our students were fragile in the beginning,” Dr Sorrell said. “But now, with this disruption and with each passing week, they’re becoming more and more discouraged, so we’re ramping up our engagement with them.”

As one solution, he said, Paul Quinn College is putting more emphasis on students attending a summer term, ahead of the autumn semester, “because we thought it could possibly function as an academic recovery opportunity”.

Ithaca College, which is teaching remotely this autumn, also sees the need for structural overhaul, Professor Collado said. “What I think it’s done is completely pushed us into a space that really is about putting students at the centre and engaging them in new ways,” she said of the pandemic.

Of the 295 presidents who responded to the ACE survey in mid-September, 43 per cent head private four-year institutions, 24 per cent lead public two-year campuses, and 22 per cent represent public four-year schools.

Most, 55 per cent, said they were offering predominantly online teaching this autumn, while 32 per cent said they were teaching primarily in-person.

Their responses also illustrate the society-wide variance in the ability to cope with the health and economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. Enrolment losses and financial damage appear heaviest among the two-year colleges, and institutions show wide divides in their capacity to provide health-related protections.

Nearly all institutions are requiring face masks on campus and providing some protective equipment, but less than a third offer ongoing Covid testing for students.

Four-year institutions were more likely than their two-year counterparts to have increased spending on teaching and student support services, and less likely to have raised tuition charges and other fees.

The leaders of most institutions, regardless of size, said they have implemented or are planning freezes in hiring and salaries. Among the four-year institutions, private-school presidents reported themselves as even more likely than their public colleagues to be taking such cost-saving measures.

The ACE survey painted a less optimistic picture of overall autumn enrolment than a recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The NSCRC suggested, based on preliminary data, that enrolment at US colleges and universities fell by only 2 per cent this autumn.

But the ACE figures show 55 per cent of presidents reporting an autumn enrolment decline. Among that 55 per cent grouping, 37 per cent of the presidents reported enrolment declines of between 6 per cent and 10 per cent, and 23 per cent described drops of between 11 per cent and 20 per cent.

Separately, ACE has estimated total budgetary losses among US colleges and universities attributable to the pandemic on the order of $120 billion (£93 billion), or nearly a fifth of the entire $650 billion that US higher education spends each year.

That $120 billion estimate counts many categories of lost revenues, as well as additional costs that include expanded financial aid for needy students and on-campus safety preparations related to Covid, said Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at ACE.

The $120 billion figure does not, however, factor in lost state budgetary support or the drop in charitable deductions that often occurs during economic recessions, Mr Fansmith said.

“It’s just a tsunami that’s hitting colleges,” he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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