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Coronavirus drop out: Are online-only courses driving college students away?

The University of Utah campus pictured in March 2020. After seven rounds of amendments and substitutions, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that would initiate the return to in-person classes by next semester.(Photo: Kelli Pierce, KSL Newsradio)

SALT LAKE CITY– Will coronavirus inspire students to drop out of school? The coronavirus outbreak has turned college campuses into ghost towns with only a few weeks left at most schools.

Any and all learning is already moving from the classroom to online. The result has left nearly 200,000 students in Utah locked out of their campus. Most concerning, university leaders can only guess if an online-only school format may lead some students to drop out.

Many of those school officials are now busy advocating for students to take their online courses seriously and finish the academic year strong.

Buyers remorse?

For University of Utah President Ruth Watkins, the concern is keeping students engaged.

“We have dedicated a number of resources to online support and learning guides,” she explained.

It’s a period of uncertainty for everyone, with now ten-percent of the U.S. workforce unemployed. Nonetheless, Watkins still believes a college degree is important as ever to navigate a topsy-turvy job market.

“The tragic event of this would be if students don’t stay on the path to complete their degrees as we enter into a period of difficulty in terms of employment and jobs,” Watkins continued. “The absolutely tragic decision would be for people to drop their enrollment.”

Another challenge for higher education leaders is navigating the possible feeling of buyers remorse that some college students and their families may have. At the University of Utah, quick steps were taken to refund students who were denied the typical “college experience.”

“We refunded housing immediately for students,” said Watkins. “We wanted to keep our students safe, that was our first priority.”

Don’t drop out, “keep plugging along”

At Salt Lake Community College, it’s a similar story.

“I’ve been in higher education for over thirty years and this is brand new to me,” explained President Deneece Huftalin.

Just like at the University of Utah, their staff is busy trying to motivate students to remain engaged and active in their learning during the pandemic.

“We were very nervous as we moved to online courses that students may feel like they can’t succeed and that it just wasn’t a learning platform for them,” she said.

Huftalin credits teachers, student affairs staff and, of course, students, as the school has seen Spring enrollment numbers stay steady with where they were before the coronavirus outbreak. She mentioned the school is closely monitoring Summer and Fall enrollment as they continue to preach the importance of higher education.

“This is not the time to drop out,” she said. “We know that a college degree is going to keep you more protected than ever going forward with this economy. Keep plugging along. That’s the message we’re sending to our students.”