Must Read Blog January 26, 2021

Beyond the Noise: COVID-19’s Impact on Course Completion Rates Will Widen Equity Gaps

This month, we share new insights from our ongoing series of faculty surveys regarding the impact of the pandemic on teaching and learning in higher education.  Nearly a year into the global pandemic that has forced higher education to rethink and shift how instruction is delivered, faculty – especially those teaching introductory-level courses – are increasingly concerned about equity and student success, despite significant efforts from institutions and faculty to pivot to online and hybrid experiences.

We followed the experiences of a consistent group of faculty teaching introductory courses across more than 600 institutions; these faculty shared their perspectives at three points in time over the course of the pandemic, offering the largest and most comprehensive view of the impact of COVID-19 on faculty and their teaching to date. This is important because introductory-level English, STEM, and other general education courses serve as gateways to degree paths but often function as gatekeepers: high failure rates in these gateway courses lead to significant dropout rates between the first and second years of college, and at disproportionately high numbers for poverty-affected and racially minoritized students. You can download the full report Time for Class: Part 3 – The Impact of 2020 on Introductory Faculty and their Students here.

These perspectives offer a call to action for institutions, policy-makers and the supplier community to address and offer solutions to reduce the growing  friction points for students entering, progressing, and completing credentials. We welcome the opportunity to speak with you about how we can help you confront these challenges in 2021.

The Pandemic is Taking a Toll on Enrollment for the Most Vulnerable Students      As the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, has reported, overall undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020 decreased 3.6% from 2019, with  enrollments in 2-year public institutions falling most starkly at 10.1%. Across all institutions, enrollment of first-time students declined  an unprecedented 13.1%. Current high school students who in previous years would be entering the postsecondary education pipeline are delaying the decision, if not giving up altogether: the number of students completing a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) during 2020 decreased 12.3% from the previous year. Early data indicate that poverty-affected and underrepresented minority students will be hit the hardest, with around 40% of Black and Latinx households reporting that a resident community college student had cancelled enrollment.

Faculty are Sounding the Alarm About Increasing Drop And Failure Rates   Faculty are reporting increases to DFWI rates, i.e. the percentage of students in a course or program who get a D or F grade, withdraw (“W”) from a course, or whose progress in the course is recorded as incomplete (“I”). Of particular concern was that faculty who teach at two-year institutions and at institutions with higher rates of Pell-eligible students report higher than average DFWI rates. This data should spur action for institutions and policy-makers alike.

This Fall, the Majority of Introductory Courses Were Delivered in Online or Hybrid Formats, but Faculty Faced Challenges                                                                    Over 90 percent of faculty who taught introductory courses reported that they delivered them in an online, hybrid, or highly-flexible format, a steep departure from the 80 percent of introductory courses that have historically been taught in person. While hybrid and highly flexible formats were heavily used to offer maximum flexibility for students, faculty teaching in these formats reported feeling less prepared to teach this fall and less satisfied with student learning outcomes. Only 56 percent of faculty teaching in hybrid formats reported that they felt prepared to teach a high-quality course this fall vs. 70 percent and 69 percent in fully online or face-to-face formats, respectively. This points to the unique challenges present in implementing these courses, particularly for the first time.

But, a Focus on Preparing Faculty for High-Quality Teaching Makes a Difference Faculty who reported that “they were prepared to teach a high-quality course this fall” were less likely to report increases in drop rates. While 33% of those who rated themselves as less prepared reported increases in drop rates, only 27% of those who reported feeling prepared did. The same holds true for failure rates; of those who reported feeling less prepared 38% reported drops in failure rates vs. 30% of those who felt prepared.

Digital Learning Infrastructure and Professional Development Matter                Only 54% of faculty report that their institutions are providing sufficient professional development for teaching online. At institutions where faculty reported sufficient PD, 89% of faculty reported feeling prepared to teach a high-quality course compared to only 36% at institutions without sufficient PD. Clearly resources devoted to helping faculty to prepare makes a significant difference in the current environment.

In an economic environment forcing many institutions to navigate uncertain and declining institutional budgets, it is important to remember that structural changes in pedagogy and practice require  institutional infrastructure and support. Both academic transformation and institutional transformation  must be considered equally.