College Lecturer and Mom Asks: Is College an Experience or a Box to Check?

Overshadowed by the health ramifications of reopening campuses this fall and the gloomy financial future of many colleges is a more student-focused question: Is college a box to check? Or an experience to be lived? That’s a decision thousands of students are struggling with right now.

The undergraduate college experience lasts only four precious years (hopefully, for most) and many students are going to decide they don’t want to waste one of them – or even a semester – in Zoom calls.

college students
The undergraduate college experience lasts only four precious years. (Twenty20 @kundoy)

Students must decide whether to proceed with college or to wait it out

Students like my daughter, a rising senior at a liberal arts college, have to decide: work on completion of an academic goal or try to wait out the pandemic. If they defer or take a leave of absence this semester, maybe they’ll get another shot at being able to fully participate in campus life. They’ll hopefully get back the things that make college life great – music and theater ensembles, sports teams, student clubs and late-night snacks with friends.

Health issues relating to this virus aren’t the major concern for most 18-to-22-year-olds. Many would go back if they could, but their campuses have decided to go online to keep everyone safe – staff, faculty and vulnerable people of all ages. As a faculty member at a large state university, I’m grateful that I don’t have to go back to campus.

For some students there is no incentive to return now

For some college students, whether they’re welcome to come back with social distancing restrictions or they’re going totally online – there’s little incentive to return until things are normal. For others, the focus is on completing their classes, getting a degree and making money in the field they’ve chosen. But, the auxiliary components – networking, fostering friendships, and pizza parties – aren’t going to be part of it now.

Both of my children finished spring semester online. My son is a rising high school senior. Slogging through the virtual learning was the focus. It was only for a few weeks, the thinking was, and next fall will be back to normal. Now that’s changed.

My daughter is gripped with decision-making paralysis. So are her friends. They’re struggling to decide whether it’s worth spending tuition money and time on classes delivered electronically.

I teach journalism at a large state university that decided only a few students can be on campus this fall semester. All lectures will be online. Only courses that can’t translate to online delivery, like some science labs and studio art, will be on campus. Universities are investing their federal COVID-19 emergency funding to train faculty to provide a better experience than the one students had in the spring.

I hope my students stay enrolled

I hope my students will stay enrolled and attend online class this fall. I love teaching, plus I need to earn a living. But, I know I can’t give them what they really want: their former lives back. They chose the university where I teach because it offers all of the fun they wanted to have in college. They belong to fraternities and sororities, write for the campus newspaper and go to parties. That’s what they’re supposed to do.

My summer training to improve the online delivery of college courses can only go so far. I’ll use a better virtual Zoom background, I know how to use breakout rooms and polls now and can give students more interactive opportunities than we had in the spring. But, I can’t replicate the experience they had before all of our lives were put on pause.

Is it worth their tuition to enroll? I don’t know.

My daughter hasn’t been on her college campus for 15 months because she spent her junior year abroad. She was living her best life in London when she was ordered home in March. She interned for an animal welfare nonprofit organization there, spent evenings in pubs and days taking classes in psychology, art and linguistics. She toured museums, rode on the Tube and sampled food from the bustling markets. It was everything she dreamed it could be and more.

My son had a hard time in the spring. His school district told students that they couldn’t get a lower grade than what they had in their classes on March 13 – the day the campus closed. He never did another assignment, read another book or tuned in to a Zoom meeting. Why should he bother? For him, it’s about checking the box, getting through school so he can be done. Doing high school at home on the computer is some new form of torture. For me and him.

There are so many things we just don’t know

His southern California high school announced they’ll be online again this fall. High school seniors will be applying to college soon. Will they have an opportunity to take the SAT or ACT? Will colleges care if they do? Who will write their letters of recommendation? What happens to recruited athletes? Will there be high school or college sports this year? What kind of value does a student add to a campus if that campus can no longer field a team, or form an orchestra? How will colleges make admission decisions in this alternate reality? How will all of the impending deferrals or gap years taken by the fall 2020 incoming freshmen impact the class of 2021? Will there be space on campuses for all of them next year?

High schools and colleges employ counselors and psychologists to help struggling students who are wallowing – not enough of them, for sure. How do students get the mental help they might need when they’re stuck at home for months?

I know we don’t have answers to these questions, we are all trying to figure it out, but there will be students who fall through the cracks. There will be more dropouts, more mental health problems. How will these students get help? Colleges and high schools need a plan for that.

More Reading to Enjoy:

Popular Face Masks for Teens and Adults – Here are the ones that the Grown and Flown community likes the most.

17 Items to Check Off the List Before Your Teen Goes to College These are the things that will be much easier to do with your student while they are home.

About Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer and Lecturer in Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Before becoming a mother to a daughter and a son, she was a staff writer at the San Diego Union-Tribune and North County Times. She is the author of four books. Follow her @swisscritter

Read more posts by Christie

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