We continue with our summer education radio series, “Closing the COVID Gap.” In our last story, we heard from families in West Virginia who are sticking with virtual or homeschool this fall. Now, we turn our attention to high school seniors and higher education.
Last fall, less than half of West Virginia’s 2020 public high school seniors enrolled in higher education. This marked the lowest college-going rate for recent high school graduates in the state since 2000. Higher education officials say the coronavirus pandemic played some role in that drop.
Additionally, many college students struggled with mental health issues and food insecurity this past year.
Education reporter Liz McCormick spoke via Skype with West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor and Community and Technical College System head Sarah Armstrong Tucker about the needs going forward.
This transcript from the original broadcast has been lightly edited for clarity.
LIZ MCCORMICK: Thank you so much, Chancellor Tucker, for joining us. Your office has made efforts this summer to allow more time for financial aid applications and allow students more time to access the assessments they need, such as the ACT or the SAT. Are there any other initiatives happening this summer that the WVHEPC or the CTC System of West Virginia is trying to spearhead? What are you and your colleagues thinking about, when it comes to these three areas: academics, financial and emotional needs of our students?
SARAH ARMSTRONG TUCKER: Sure. So, several of the colleges have set up academic bridge programs for high school seniors, because we anticipate that students aren't going to be prepared to go to college. We know that the colleges are going to have to provide [students] with some additional supports. We've also talked with the colleges about just assuming that students who are incoming are going to need a significant amount of support around English and math, and just providing that support up front. We've talked about just assuming that every single college freshman is going to need to be in a co-requisite course, because they just haven't had the time in school that they've needed to be successful as a freshman. That probably will continue for the next couple of years. The colleges are preparing to work with those students and make sure that they're academically ready.
Behavioral health has risen to the top as has food insecurity, but we have a number of behavioral health initiatives happening here at the CTC System office that get pushed out to the institutions. But we're also working with the West Virginia Legislature to see if there may be some additional funding that we could find, to help support our staff at the college campuses. We know that counseling staff were completely overwhelmed this year, and [schools] ended up having to find telehealth organizations that could work with the colleges and the students to help make sure that each of the student's needs were being addressed. I don't anticipate that going away this year, so we are actively working to try to find ways to provide those supports to the colleges.
MCCORMICK: As we are nearing the fall, what are we seeing in terms of programs and supports that will probably be sticking around for the long term?
TUCKER: Well, from a behavioral health perspective, I think, the isolation of COVID-19, and what we all had to go through during COVID-19, made mental health issues much more significant. So, if you were depressed, and you needed to be around people and needed to be able to have access to your therapist, and suddenly that all got shut down, it made it very difficult. I think all of us probably felt some level of stress and difficulty throughout this entire time. I know I certainly did. And so, you know, I don't think that just disappears with the wave of a magic vaccine wand. That is a longterm hole that we're going to have to be digging out of.
But in addition, and I have believed this for a while, we haven't thrown enough resources at behavioral health for a long time. And [the pandemic] just really highlighted how important that was. And so we're going to have to be able to identify some resources to help our college campuses do a better job of supporting our students. And let me be clear, it's not that they don't want to, it's just a matter of shifting resources and priorities to make that happen.
As far as academics are concerned, I think we learned that we can do things in a virtual environment in a way that we didn't know we could do before. So I don't anticipate online learning going away as the end of the pandemic, but I don't think that it is the be-all-end-all that we once thought it could be. I think we've learned that being together is important. Having an instructor interacting with students and having students be able to interact with one another is important. And so I don't think we're going to see a mass shift to online learning. But I do think incorporating more hybrid formats into the everyday college experience is very likely to continue.
MCCORMICK: Chancellor, what would be some advice that you might share with those high school 2020 graduates who may still be trying to figure out where to land after such a shake-up in their academic experience?
TUCKER: I would tell them it's never too late to go back to college, and that they really need to be thinking about pursuing some sort of post-secondary career. You know, we know that the jobs that are out there are going to require some form of post-secondary training, whether that's a community college or a baccalaureate degree or above. If they want to get the job that they want to have for the rest of their lives and be able to support themselves and live the lifestyle that they want to live, they've got to re-engage with higher education and go back to school. We have so many resources for them to be able to do that. We have more than $100 million that comes through my office, on an annual basis, that goes straight out to students to help support them in going to college. And so please, reach out to us, or reach out to your local institutions and find out what's available. Because there are so many options in the state of West Virginia, and there's so many good ones.
MCCORMICK: As we get ready to enter this new school year, do you know yet how things are going to look at West Virginia college campuses this fall? At both our four-years and our two-years? Do you have a sense of whether COVID-19 vaccinations will be required of students? And will masks be part of the equation at all anymore?
TUCKER: I think that as long as the vaccinations are still under an emergency use status, none of the public higher education institutions in the state of West Virginia will require vaccines. And, you know, once that emergency use status changes, then we'll probably have a different conversation. But it hasn't changed. And so for now, no, no one is going to require the use of the vaccine. But everyone will be encouraged, if they haven't been vaccinated, to wear masks. I'm not sure if a [mask requirement] is going to happen at any institution. We encourage everyone to get vaccinated. The data out there just supports how important getting vaccinated is, and as you're seeing the death toll for the Delta variant go up, you're talking about unvaccinated people. And so we will encourage all of our faculty, all of our staff, all of our students to get vaccinated, and as the semester begins, we'll certainly find opportunities for any student or faculty or staff member who wants to get vaccinated to do so.