A Glimpse Into the Undergraduate Experience during COVID-19 Signals Declining Sentiment about the Value of a College Education

A student who attends a public flagship university in California characterizes distance learning as: 

Chaos is an apt description. Zoom is challenging to manage and pre-recorded lectures lack humor. It’s difficult to focus on lectures… 

Third year undergraduate

The student, like many others, struggles to continue learning, conflicted about missing friends and her life in another city yet appreciative of being home with family who are safe and healthy. She’s also frustrated, now learning the material isolated on her own, absent the dynamism of a live human presentation. 

The quality of education and instruction is likely diminished in the short term, which can create a long term consequence as often understanding in one class is interconnected with understanding concepts in more advanced classes. Thus, students, including the one quoted, may need to remediate their understanding when “normal” university, in-person classes once again commence. 

University administrators’ response to the potential decline in educational quality with distance learning created additional concerns for the undergrad: 

I worry that online exams will be much worse than in-person ones as our administration has explicitly told professors to make our courses more difficult to maintain “the integrity of a [her public flagship university] degree”, which [already] varies so much depending on which professors someone is lucky enough to end up with, that the entire notion seems ridiculous to most who actually attend the university. 

Third year undergraduate

However, university administrators fail to acknowledge that the integrity of the education at their institution was already inconsistent. Thus, their efforts will not have the intended effect, unless they help the professors who lack an ability to teach. 

However, the student does recognize her fortunes in such a “chaotic” circumstance, which other university students do not have:

I’m just lucky we did not require a pass/no pass system, which would have torpedoed my GPA for medical school as a pass is universally considered a C.

Third year undergraduate

Overall, the student’s sentiments about the closure of campus and the transition to distance learning are a mixed bag:

To be fair, this is an unprecedented crisis. In some ways, I’m glad that professors have been left to their own devices because I have no faith that our university’s administration is capable of leading educational directives.

The loss of confidence in her university administrators indicates a nagging doubt about the value of her college experience, her original confidence that she’d develop the skills and knowledge necessary to one day work as a doctor, no longer so strong.  And, although she will still apply to medical school with the full reputation of the university stamped on her degree, she’s also not as sure that the same administrators guaranteeing the integrity of her education can actually make good on that guarantee. 

While the student will endure in the short term, as she believes distance learning is temporary, and will return to campus eventually to finish her final year of college, once the immediate risks of the health emergency subside, she is another indicator of the growing public distrust in the value of a college education. Without more thoughtful consideration now, so actions have the intended effect, university administrators may continue eroding the trust between the university, the students and many parents who pay the tuition bills, possibly signaling the decline after decades of annually increasing demand for a college education. 

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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