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In this episode, Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman, and Kevin Kelly discuss signals we’re seeing and hearing about how the Spring 2021 term is likely to play out, including student survey results on whether courses are improving enough to keep them engaged and enrolled.


  • Phil Hill
  • Jeanette Wiseman
  • Kevin Kelly



Phil: Welcome to COVID Transitions, where we discuss how higher education is adapting and managing the transition coming from the pandemic. In a lot of our episodes and the original set up for this podcast, we were thinking of it more as we moved into the fall term and what was going to be happening there. Now that we’re deep into November, it’s quite clear that spring 2021 is going to be another COVID term, if you will, definitely not in the new normal, but continuing transition that we’ll be in. Today, that’s what we want to cover. Just trying to say, hey, let’s look ahead harder into what are we likely to see in the spring? What lessons are we already learning and what does that indicate that we should look at going forward?

As always, I’m Phil Hill and I’m with Kevin Kelly and Jeanette Wisemen. Thanks for joining us again today. Let [00:01:00] me start with you, Kevin. This week you wrote a post where you looked at the Top Hat surveys and it gave somewhat of a longitudinal study. We’re starting to get better ideas of what’s changing. What are you seeing that’s happening in terms of higher education, adapting over time? What do you think that’s going to mean for the spring?

Kevin: I’m not sure if there is a lot that’s changing. I think the changes are slightly incremental. Students are still feeling anxious. They’re still not feeling connected with their fellow students. They’re still not happy with the online learning experience, for the most part. This echoes what we see in other surveys, like the Every Learner Everywhere Students Speak 20/20 report that came out and other information.

I think what’s most instructive is the questions around things like whether students are likely to return to their current school next term, which had a 10 percent drop of the people who selected the highly likely option on [00:02:00] the on the form. That dovetails a little bit with some of the metrics we’re seeing with enrollment figures and things like that. It’ll be interesting for sure to see how spring pans out. Student perspectives on the learning experience don’t seem to have improved a ton, but there’s more to dig into there and that’ll be my next post.

Phil: If they haven’t changed a ton, but is it positive movement that you’re seeing or negative? What movement have you seen so far or is it in the noise?

Kevin: Students are three percent less worried about completing their courses this term, but they’re two percent more worried about passing them. They’re not worried about finishing the course, but they are worried about passing it. Those numbers are not insignificant. There are like 35, 40 percent of the students have those worries. Getting into the thinking about how [00:03:00] are we supporting these students?

Again, these questions were for students. They weren’t asking the things like Every Learner Everywhere asked related to teaching techniques, what did you experience? They did ask about use of video and stuff like that, but they don’t give us a good overall picture of the learning experience,

Phil: I’m sure will jump into some more of that data as we go through this conversation.

Jeanette, tell me, what have you been seeing? I know that you’ve talked to your daughters, but you’ve also talked to other students. I know you’ve been doing a lot of reading. What have you been learning as you sort of think about what’s changed and what’s likely to change?

Jeanette: I don’t want to predict, but what I’ve been reading and what I’ve been talking to some higher ed students right now about, it’s just overall kind of bleak. I think at best the students seem somewhat apathetic at what’s going on and even looking forward to spring. It’s sort of this [00:04:00] hope that something could potentially change and maybe things would get back to normal. Spring 2021 seems to be weekly sort of slipping away that hope, and things are going to probably still just be all online is starting to become more concrete for these students.

They’re not happy overall. I don’t think that it’s a case of not happy with their classes or not happy with little things. In general, it seems like overall. There was an article this week in The Times just about the level of depression and mental health issues that are happening with young people right now. It’s across the board. I think that was echoed.

I did talk to some upperclassmen and also some freshmen about their experiences. It was the upperclassmen that seemed to be having more of an issue than the freshmen. The upperclassmen, the seniors especially [00:05:00] and the juniors, that I spoke to were just wanting it to be over. I think that what you could say is that they had something to compare it to. This was not the college experiences they had had up to date. For them, there was this real loss of community, or just the experiences of being on campus or having the mentorship with of some of their professors and not feeling that. For the seniors, it was really just trying to get through and be done. Then the anxiety of what they’re going to do afterwards, given the economy, came up.

I think for the freshmen, they seemed to be a little bit happier. They were excited to be in college, even though that college experience was really different. I did hear some complaints about just the settings and it wasn’t what they thought it was going to be. They still seem to be somewhat more upbeat. It could be, and this is just me hypothesizing about this, that they didn’t [00:06:00] have anything to compare it to. While it wasn’t what they were maybe thinking it was going to be like in their head, it wasn’t a comparison like the upperclassmen had.

In all, I think a group of young people trying to do the best they can, but not really enjoying the experience. I will say that there was one student who did say that she felt that this format, she would never have considered it, going online, but it was a format that she was comfortable with. It was something that, she seemed to be really introverted, she felt like it was a way for her to express herself and not be as nervous as she had been in class. It wasn’t completely all negative, but that was like one little tiny silver lining.

Phil: Just to add to the anecdotes, talking to my daughter, who’s a senior, they’re mostly online, but it’s somewhat hybrid and it’s restricted who can be residential [00:07:00] at the school. I was asking her what her plans are since we live so close to the school anyway as far as being on campus. Her response was really, I just don’t feel any connection to the campus anymore. I’ve got to do my courses. I’ll finish up. I still have my friends that I know directly. She’s just losing her connection to campus and really not caring as much.

It really makes me wonder what are going to be the long term impacts of students who just lose that connection to the school being a special place and something they always remember. Jeanette, you mentioned about connection to professors as mentors. It seems like there’s going to be a longer term impact from all of this loss of connection. At the same time, even though the lower division students might not be as disappointed, they’re certainly the ones [00:08:00] who are not attending. If you look at the enrollment numbers, there’s such a large decrease in first time students. There’s just a lot of loss of connection to the school that I think we’re seeing.

Jeanette: From a socio-developmental standpoint, I think that there’s some major issues that it’s going to probably take a long time to determine how it’s impacted these young adults and maybe teenagers, that they’ve lost that connection. It’s hard to keep up. It’s part of their identity. It’s part of helping form their identity, having those connections with peers. I think as much as we see this generation as ones that are always connected through technology with social media, they don’t seem to be getting what they need from that at all, I think from the Zoom classes. I don’t know if anyone knows what the long term effects are going to be, but hopefully they can rebound.

Kevin: I think some of the effects could even extend [00:09:00] to the financial spectrum where students are missing out on opportunities to network with potential future professional connections. On the campus side, the lack of connection to the campus could mean fewer alumni donations or at least smaller ones. We’re already seeing downsizing of revenue streams for those alternative channels like dining halls and everything else. Although some campuses are getting clever about order your food and come pick it up and eat it in your in your room, if there is a residential option. They’re working around some of the challenges.

Then to your points around the first year versus second, third or fourth or more, the Top Hat survey did do some cross tabulation around the students responses by year. It’s true, based on what you’re both saying, that the first year students are missing fewer things, [00:10:00] especially campus based things like student services or access to the training facilities or things like that. Surprisingly, they’re the ones who missed the campus housing the most. I think it’s reflective of what you are saying, Jeanette, that they want wanted to have a college experience where they left their house and went to a campus and have that non-academic experience that I’ve talked about in a number of my posts.

Vincent Tinto said for students to feel the need to persist at an institution, there’s an academic integration and a social integration, and they both have to happen. If the students aren’t getting that social aspect and if the campuses aren’t trying to do whatever they can to create a sense of virtual community, then they’re going to either see students maybe not staying at that particular campus. Maybe move back home and pick a campus closer to their house, or they may just drop out altogether.

Phil: One thing [00:11:00] I’d like to add in, the National Student Clearinghouse just came out with their most recent enrollment report because they do it about once a month throughout the term. If you look at the numbers, current numbers are the drop in enrollment for undergraduates is four point four percent drop overall compared to last year. Which on one hand, it’s not devastating, and grad school enrollment has actually gone up across the board. From fall 2019 to fall 2020 overall, total college enrollment is down three point three percent is what the current estimates are.

Yet at the same time, there are worrying trends behind that. We’ve already mentioned the fact that first year students is where you’re seeing the biggest drops. It actually [00:12:00] sort of is across different ethnic groups. Overall, it currently is estimated to there’s a 13 percent drop in first year student enrollment and there are going to be impacts throughout.

There’s another piece that I don’t think gets covered or hasn’t been covered enough, and maybe we should write a blog post about it. It’s that where the total enrollment is going up, you’re actually seeing quite a bit more enrollment by part time students than by full time. For a public four year, the full time enrollment down two point four percent, but the part time enrollment is up 2.5 percent. Private, that’s similar, down 2.5 percent for full time, up point nine percent for part time. Then for the for profit sector, full time enrollments down two point three percent and part time is up six point nine percent.

I [00:13:00] guess the point being is while looking at enrollment, it’s gone down, not by devastating numbers. It’s becoming a lot more of a part time student population that’s happening. It’s almost like students are saying, OK, I’ll keep things going on, but I’m not fully committed to this anymore or I’ve got to do it at the same time as working or there are various reasons for it. I think it’s important to note how much difference there is between full time students and part time students.

Kevin: In that same Clearinghouse research that you were citing, if you go to the bottom of that article, the online institution enrollments across all undergraduate students full time is under one percent, but the part time is over 12 percent. Just reinforcing what you’re talking about.

Phil: Every way you look at it, part time enrollment is much higher than full time enrollment, which signifying that there’s a pretty significant [00:14:00] shift towards part time enrollment. To me, I think that relates a lot to what we’ve been talking about, the loss of connection.

Take this hypothesis. It’s almost as if education is becoming much more transactional during this pandemic. I don’t have as much of a close tie to the school as a special place. I don’t have as much of a tie of being in it full time. I’m more likely to shift which school I go to. It’s feeling more transactional to me. That’s something I guess you could argue was already happening, but it seems like that’s accelerated the trend of making this education much more transactional.

Kevin: At the risk of bringing up a pre COVID buzzword, it could lead to block chain transcripts where students are just doing their part time instruction at whatever institution makes the most sense for that semester or quarter.  [00:15:00]Then they compile a transcript of small micro credentials or just courses that add up to something at the end, but it’s not an experience where you’d feel tied to an institution where you’ve made some great relationships that will last a lifetime. It’s transactional, as you say.

Phil: For the people playing bingo with the podcast. I do believe that’s the first usage of block chain on the COVID transition podcast.

Jeanette, give me your thoughts. Does it feel like college university is becoming more transactional?

Jeanette: You guys were saying that. I was thinking I have this really interesting experience and I don’t have anything to compare it to because it’s my oldest daughter is a senior in high school and we are now in the process of evaluating some of the early admits. She’s gone to different colleges, determining if those are places she wants to go to, some recruitment happening to see if she’s going to commit or if she’s going to take a gap year next [00:16:00] year.

I just find it interesting that we’ve been having these calls with some different universities that are offering some nice scholarships for her to attend. The things that they’re offering, they haven’t quite figured out how to offer that community or that education absent her being on campus. None of the people that we’ve spoken to, to date, have anything to offer us that would be available online. It’s all once everything comes back to normal, this is the activities you can do. These are the seminars you can take. This is the special program the honors students go to on the special field trip and that type of thing. Or this is what the town is like. None of it has been something that can be offered to her as well online. Just because everyone is opening by next fall, everything’s going to be back to normal.

Yes, transactional for sure. At this point with this [00:17:00] real sincere hope that there are students in every campus life will be as it was, pre 2019.

Phil: It seems like it’s a double edged sword, though. By becoming more transactional, it’s not all negative. It’s something that a lot of people have argued for.

Kevin, you were mentioning more of the block chain approach or trying to patch together your education to get what you need. There’s even cost implications. A lot of the looking at the cost of higher education is focused on, we’ve spent too much on college life and it often gets in the way of being able to provide cost effective education, particularly for students who are have difficulty paying for it.

There could be an argument that if we’re stripping away a lot of the college experience, focusing more on the transaction, get what you need from your courses, [00:18:00] your degree or certificate, there are potential benefits to this as well. At the same time, there’s a loss of connection and it’s going to hurt the business of higher education and losing the connection to your peers has got to be a negative side. It’s a mixed bag to me.

We need to be aware of how much this is shifting. It’ll be interesting to see in the spring. What does this mean? Does this mean a lot more transfers that we will see from fall to spring than we would typically see or students going to check out and say, oh, I’m going to try again next year? To mw, I think the transfer and the retention are two of the biggest data points that we should be looking at moving into the spring.

Kevin: I think the song for this episode now as the outro is going to have to be Satisfaction. That’s what [00:19:00] you need.

Phil: I think for copyright reasons, we’ll have to sing it.

Kevin: All right. Well, that means more drinking. First karaoke on COVID.

I think you’re right in terms of how you frame that argument. I think it’s still early to tell what’s going to happen in spring. We know students are unhappy about some of the plans that campuses are making. If you look at the University of Arizona’s desire to get rid of spring break, for the right reasons, so that students aren’t traveling somewhere and coming back and they’re spending some of those spring break days as reading days throughout the semester. The students didn’t have any input in that and are upset about it, at least on social media. It’s going to be interesting to see how students react to some of these ways that campuses are trying to address the virus while trying to provide a comprehensive educational experience. It’s a no win situation [00:20:00], in some ways.

Phil: One other element I do want to add in here, and that gets more to the teaching, the course design. I’ve definitely seen surveys showing where faculty are becoming more accustomed to teaching online and not as resistant and incrementally changing their practices, not as strong as what a lot of us would hope. It seems like incrementally you’re seeing faculty becoming more comfortable with the medium. I don’t know that it’s fast enough. Certainly I’ve been frustrated as a parent and for many of the schools that I’m directly working with. Are we seeing an incremental adaptation by faculty and through course design to improve the education using online or hybrid modalities?

Kevin: I can jump in with some of the data from the Top Hat survey that’s going into my next [00:21:00] post. Students have reported that instructors are more likely to engage in collaborative activities or interaction, but they’re not satisfied with it. They’re noting that instructors are trying, but they’re they’re not satisfied. 66 percent like real time online learning activities, like synchronous lectures, but only 56 percent like online chatting with other students during the course period.

A lot of them, I think it’s over 75 percent, don’t feel they learn as well online. You have a certain number of students. I think it was somewhere between one and three and one in two, pre COVID, that had taken at least one online course. Now you have all students taking online courses or hybrid courses. Those students who didn’t choose to do so are in this space of what do I do now, especially [00:22:00] if they’re in the middle of their studies?

Phil: I like the way you phrased that, or I think it’s a good way to phrase what you did. It’s not necessarily good news where you were essentially saying that faculty are more likely to be incrementally improving or using different tools for engagement. By and large, students aren’t satisfied. It’s almost a picture of, yes, things are improving, but not enough to make a material difference yet.

Jeanette: I’m wondering too, it’s the extra work that those instructors have put in to try to make it more engaging or try to move online successfully with their curriculum, and then if the students aren’t satisfied with it, that’s got to be really disenchanting. Just having these instructors who are already so overworked and then perhaps whatever modality they were in, it seems like even if it wasn’t planned, a lot of universities now after Thanksgiving will be either moving online when that wasn’t planned. T [00:23:00]hey’re asked to shift again. I’m sure there’s a lot of frustration right now with staff.

Kevin: I think it’s that ambiguity of not knowing what’s going to be happening next. In those campuses that are lining up to be on campus again in the spring could end up like that one campus that had to shut down three weeks before Thanksgiving because they just had too many cases. Others are doing a good job of mitigating the COVID load on their campus. You see campus websites with tickers that show the percentage of students who’ve been tested and the percentage of students that have been quarantined because they tested positive. It’s like a new phenomenon. Instead of a ticker like related to a sports team, it’s a ticker related to every student on campus and whether or not the load is high enough that they have to shut down.

Phil: To hearken back to a previous episode of ours, one thing that this says to me is we’re going to see an even stronger trend towards what we described before as [00:24:00] the strong get stronger, the weak get weaker. The schools that have already invested in online and hybrid education and helping support faculty to make engaging courses or primarily online, and that’s what they’ve been from the beginning. They’re just going to continue to do better and better, is my guess, even into the spring. Students are saying, incremental improvements, not enough. I want to be at a school who’s doing an adequate job with what I need. If it’s on campus, it better be a school that did prepare properly and is not changing things around or stopping to soon. To me, it just feels like we’re going to see more of that. The strong getting stronger moving forward.

Kevin: Especially with budgets going down and the need to ramp up things like professional development for teachers. [00:25:00] I’m going to be the broken record and say, when are we going to start helping students become better online learners? The best you see are some websites with a couple of PDF’s or different tricks. 

I’ll point to Santa Clara University that I worked with to create a more robust offering that includes student voice videos to help students help their peers become better online learners. It’s too few and far between. I really think that we’re going to have to ramp that up over the winter if we’re going to have a better experience in the spring.

Phil: The message is clear. Another transition term coming up and halfway doing things is not a way to go right now. We’ll share more of these data signals and the anecdotes as far as what we’re predicting for the spring. Right now, it’s looking sort of bleak. There are definitely opportunities, but it’s almost the schools that can take advantage of the opportunities [00:26:00] or the ones that prepared years ago. Don’t want to say there’s no chance to adapt, but things are getting even more serious here in higher education.

Kevin and Jeanette, great talking to you guys today and hope you have a great weekend.

Jeanette: You, too.

Kevin: I’m going to go play Satisfaction on YouTube right now.