Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Two Challenges of This School Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

News from Washington solidifies what most educators already knew—this is going to be the year of returning schools to business as usual. With healthcare leaders announcing plans to treat COVID with an annual booster—much like people get a regular flu shot—the days of mask alerts and online school days largely seem behind us, and educators will get the chance to focus on what they were trained to do—help young people move on with their lives.

That isn’t to suggest the impact of the COVID pandemic is behind us. Reports suggest that four million- four million—children are leaving the pandemic with the loss of a parent or primary caregiver. That worldwide figure translates to 285,000 children in the US, many of them our students. Combined with students facing the challenges of trying to learn and socialize without a full array of in-person experiences in the last two years, it’s safe to say we’ll be working with students whose school experiences have been less than comprehensive.

It's clear counselors are going to play a major role in meeting the needs of students to process these effects and find a way to move forward, and that includes the counselor’s role as a college counselor. Too much counseling literature in the last two years has emphasized the need for better mental health programming in schools, without specifying just what that programming should include. Self-esteem, self-awareness, and effective interpersonal skills certainly play a key role this programming, but it’s just as important for students to develop an understanding of what they could become.


Goal setting can create a sense of purpose in a student who would otherwise look at their current situation and lose hope. It’s the fresh start students often yearn for, a chance to escape the limitations their peers, community, circumstances, and family have placed upon them. At a time when too many students have felt boxed in by the few choices COVID has left them, what better time to expose them to vistas of new opportunity and hope, the outcomes of a successful college and career awareness curriculum?

It won’t be easy getting students to think outside the limitations of COVID, and that leads to a second challenge. With the exception of a handful of name four-year colleges, most postsecondary institutions are facing declines in enrollment—some losses as great as 40 percent. This is just as true for community colleges, where enrollment was expected to increase during COVID, assuming students would learn from home. In most cases, community colleges are realizing double-digit enrollment losses.

This loss of interest is going to call on the higher education community—counselors, admissions officers, and especially financial aid officials—to adjust their advising and recruiting strategies. Too many of these strategies have been aimed at the student who saw college as a given, and rightfully so. It’s much easier to sell the students on the quality of a particular brand (or college) if they’re already convinced college is worthwhile.

That’s not the case now. High college costs have combined with a tight job market, leading families to wonder if college is really worth the investment, especially with the relatively lower cost of technical training, training which leads to good paying jobs in considerably less time.

Health officials may be declaring an end to the damage done by COVID, but counselors and higher education officials start this school year desperately needing to clean up the debris created by its wake. Making college part of the mental health equation, and marketing college towards those not already convinced of its value, are at the top of the to-do list.

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