How the pandemic changed higher education in California: Many of the changes are here to stay

For many, the coronavirus pandemic was expected to last a few weeks, at most. Instead, after more than a year, it’s completely changed higher education in a way that will persist even after campuses have repopulated and California and the U.S. reach some form of herd immunity.

The most significant change has been to instruction and learning, with the vast majority of students and faculty in online classes. But there have been other changes, such as an intense focus on mental health and campuses becoming more flexible with how they operate.

“Higher education isn’t actually known for being nimble,” said Lande Ajose, senior policy adviser for higher education to Gov. Gavin Newsom. “But to take a system, or a set of systems or institutions, where you have an excess of 3 million students and say in the course of two to three weeks, we’ll move students to distance learning is enormous.”

Ajose leads Newsom’s Council for Post-Secondary Education, which assembled a task force to develop a “road map for higher education after the pandemic” that would help aid the state’s recovery. The task force’s recommendations included a common application form for admission to all public higher education in California and support for students’ basic needs, such as internet and financial aid.

These changes would hopefully help to flip what has been a challenging year for many college students. Surveys from the U.S. Census Bureau estimate 30% of students have canceled college enrollment plans for fall 2021.

Students are questioning the value of taking classes online, said Nicole Smith, chief economist and research professor at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.