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EDITORIAL: College students are struggling, too, and they're paying top dollar

Mike Christopherson

Pre-K students and their families and on up the grade elevator to high school seniors are getting a lot of attention, and rightly so, for their pandemic-inspired struggles with distance learning and cancelled milestone celebrations and achievements and sports and activities.

Certainly it’s a tough go for all of them and no fun.

But when we’re feeling sympathetic and trying to be empathetic and voicing our concerns and worries about what they’re all going through, let’s not forget to include college students and their families, too. 

After all, college students are being fed through a similar meat-grinder, with the massive difference being that they’re also paying several hundred dollars per academic credit and thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition and a long list of student fees each semester to, for the most part, learn off-campus by staring at a screen.

It’s one thing to be an elementary or secondary student learning via distance education. If you’re distracted, irresponsible or anything else that kids often are, the adults in your home, with an assist from your teachers, are going to, hopefully, do their best to keep you on track.

But if you’re a college student, are mom and dad even around to make sure you’re keeping up and doing reasonably well? Will your professors take extra steps and reach out to you if it appears you’re slipping? Are there responsible, mature, intelligent people monitoring your mental and emotional well-being through all of this?

College students are young adults, yes, but their frontal lopes are still, shall we say...developing. They’re irresponsible and immature. Some of them need the actual experience of getting out of bed and going to a classroom in person in order to be productive, successful students. Strolling across your dorm or apartment in a morning brain-fog to look at thumbnail video images of your professor and classmates? Sleeping in or playing video games while scarfing down some cold pizza sounds better.

Last spring, when teachers in Crookston Public Schools had around eight days to put a distance learning model together, they did their absolute best, but it was a pretty rough go. But, having a summer to plan, the reviews for distance learning this fall have been markedly better.

But let’s not simply assume universities have a corner on the online, distance learning market. UMN Crookston many years ago was an online learning pioneer, and was seen as revolutionary across the globe way back in the early 1990s when it provided a laptop computer to every student. Today, courses at UMN Crookston and on other campuses that are designed from the get-go to be delivered online are still quality experiences in most instances, but there is a wide chasm between an actual online course and a course designed to be delivered in-person in the classroom that is shifted on the fly to distance delivery.

Some college faculty really buy in to online learning and they’re excellent at delivering courses in that fashion. But others, not so much. Their lack of skills and negative attitude often come through as they teach those courses, and, in the event of a pandemic, they are forced to teach those courses. Would you want your college student being charged more than $1,000 for a course taught via email? 

College students are failing courses, even students who never dreamed they’d get an F. They’re withdrawing from courses they’ll have to take again later. Maybe they’re getting a partial tuition refund, or maybe they realized too late that they couldn’t tread water any longer and they’re simply out that money. They’re deciding whether to shun actual grades in favor of a pass/fail model being offered by many universities because of the pandemic and the resulting situation. Again, they’re paying thousands of dollars for this. They’re dropping out. Maybe they’ll return when things are more back to normal, or maybe they won’t.

It’s a challenging, difficult time in education right now, for educators, students, parents and everyone else who has a stake in the goal of helping young people learn what they need to know before they embark on their adult lives.

K-12 students? They have the gift of time, and this pandemic will pass. College students? The sense of urgency is greater, and what they’re having to experience right now is not what they had in mind when they, along with their parents, made the commitment to invest in their education.