Will the millions of Americans whose education plans were disrupted by the pandemic ever reconnect with postsecondary education or training? 

That’s the question on the minds of policymakers, higher ed leaders, and anyone concerned about the nation’s ability to rebound from the pandemic. And the data show the number of learners with no plans to return has increased since last year.

Last year, Strada Education Network’s Public Viewpoint survey found that roughly 90 percent of people who changed or canceled their education plans because of COVID-19 either were enrolled or intended to within six months. But that share has declined by more than 20 percentage points.

The shift represents a national crisis, Andrew Hanson, director of research at Strada Education Network, said during a recent Strada webinar about the survey research, “Back to Class: Will Pandemic-Disrupted Learners Return to School?”

“They’re no longer on the path to all of the benefits that we associate with education: upward mobility, career advancements, realizing your potential, and achieving your goals,” Hanson said.

Hanson was joined by two higher education experts who shared ideas about how to help reengage disrupted learners: Linda García, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Community College Student Engagement — which promotes improvement in student learning and completion — and Su Jin Gatlin Jez, executive director of California Competes, focused on college access and success. During the webinar, Garcia described how the center had uncovered similar findings about the impact of COVID-19 on prospective college students. For example, she said one-third of students had changed their education plans. And many are struggling with barriers such as a lack of child care or not being able to afford college.

“We have to just motivate them to come back,” she said, and “really get to know what they’re experiencing.”

In the webinar, Garcia and Gatlin Jez distilled what they see as the three most important steps postsecondary leaders can take to reverse the enrollment declines:

Customize wraparound supports and guidance to meet students where they are.

To connect with students, colleges need to add more customized services and guidance, García said. And she said students too often are not even aware of the supports that colleges offer, noting that more than half (57 percent) of student respondents to a center survey said they did not know if their college offered help for them to cope with pandemic-related stress.

Gatlin Jez said many of the problems lower-income and working students face are not new. “It took a pandemic to make a lot of people pay attention to this,” she said.

The organization she leads, California Competes, recently found that 1 in 5 Californians want to enroll in higher education in the next two years. And Gatlin Jez said many potential students in the state face challenges with broadband and internet access, as well as digital literacy.

Enlist faculty members.

Both Gatlin Jez and García said colleges need to prioritize more resources for faculty members to help students reconnect, including with work-based learning. And while college leaders often encourage instructors to pitch in, time can be a challenge. “Faculty just have a lot on our plates,” Gatlin Jez said.

Likewise, García said the center has found most part-time faculty members have been left out of the efforts to redesign guided pathways on their campuses, which are aimed at helping students see a clearer journey through college. And she said many faculty members want more professional development opportunities.

Harness the potential of the moment.

While the pandemic brought on a historic crisis for enrollment, also monumental is the flush of expected government support, with the Biden administration proposing massive investments in college completion and student aid. With this influx comes great opportunity for implementing system changes that make a difference.

California is one of several revenue-flush states that also are considering big spending ideas for lower-income students. Gatlin Jez pointed to a $1 billion grant program proposed by Gavin Newsom, the state’s Democratic governor, which would be for displaced workers to access college or start a business. And she said Newsom’s $4 billion in suggested spending on college housing would be targeted for the Pell Grant-eligible students who need it most.

Given the alarming figures about students drifting away from higher education, the time is now for bold investments, Gatlin Jez said: “If we don’t act quickly, this historic crisis will only get worse.”