Librarians Help Pandemic-Era Students Stay on Track for College

COVID-19 led some students to put off college or arrive less prepared academically or emotionally. Librarians offer support by discussing all options and addressing financial barriers.

College and transition counselor Jill Corbin with a student
Photo courtesy of Jill Corbin


At MacArthur High School in San Antonio, TX, school librarian Janelle Schnacker has firsthand experience supporting students through the “senioritis” that afflicts many college-bound students this time of year.

“The idea of senioritis is not laziness. It’s oftentimes paralysis by fear,” she says. “For a lot of our students, it starts to sink in that the past roughly 13 years of life in school are ending, and [they’re] moving on to something else.”

The pandemic only added more uncertainty and instability during a period already filled with unknowns, leading students to put off college, or arrive less prepared academically or emotionally. Educators attuned to these issues are finding ways to help.

“Sometimes you have honest conversations with kids where they say, ‘I wanted to graduate, but I’m not ready to,’” Schnacker says. “That mentality has been inflamed by the pandemic. You had kids who were forced into a very insular kind of existence. They lost a lot of structure.”

The class of 2022 will have spent more than half of their high school careers in a pandemic. Many students are looking forward to the future—and the promise of finally socializing with peers and getting the full college experience, as more universities offer in-person classes and programming.

But librarians like Schnacker, along with guidance counselors, education researchers, and academic librarians, have also seen students who need more personalized guidance navigating post-high school options: Is a four-year college still the right fit as society continues to wrestle with COVID-19? Or would a community college, military academy, or trade school provide a more personal, not to mention affordable, experience? Instead of an out-of-state school, maybe staying closer to home is better? Or is a break the right choice after a stressful, emotionally difficult two years?

College enrollment has seen a steep decline because of pandemic disruptions. Since the fall of 2019, undergraduate enrollment rates have dropped 6.6 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s report in January 2022. That’s a total of 1,205,600 students. The declining matriculation rates leave education researchers like Elaine Leigh, a postdoctoral fellow at Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights, worried about what to expect for enrollment in the fall.

College Graph. Biggest influence on decision not to continue education Chart: 39% Feeling too much stress, anxiety, or uncertainty; 26% Financial pressure on me and my family/cannot afford education;7% Health risks of attending classes in person; 7% Need to care for a family member; 7% Not sure if education would help me have a job or career I want; 5% My grades got worse; 3% The program or courses I want are not available; 3% Less connection to high school counselors and teachers;2% Schools and programs aren’t providing the kind of experience I want anymore; 1% Don’t have access to the technology or internet needed for online education.
Source: Strada Center for Education Consumer Insights study “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations” (June 2021) by Nichole Torpey-Saboe & Melissa Leavitt 

“It’s concerning when we’ve made progress in the past 10–15 years from a college access standpoint, to have a lot of that just wiped away [from the pandemic],” says Leigh, who will join the faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey this summer.

In September 2021, Leigh and collaborators at Strada and Heart + Mind Strategies wanted to dig into the downward trend, and identify gaps, needs, and decision drivers that are influencing young adults’ plans for postsecondary education during COVID-19. They conducted a survey of more than 1,200 U.S. high school students who had planned to go to college, but postponed. Results show that 40 percent of students in the class of 2020 received a college acceptance letter, compared to 23 percent of 2021 graduates accepted into a college or other postsecondary education program.

That’s likely because the class of 2020 was further into the college application process when the pandemic shut down schools, Leigh says. The 2021 class had their high school experience interrupted in the spring of their junior year—exactly when many students launch the college process.

“I wasn’t sure where the pandemic was going and if there would be more lockdowns,” shared survey respondent Kitana. “I was afraid it would affect my education and I wouldn’t do well.”

That unpredictability placed a major toll on students’ decision-making, says Leigh. When they were asked about the biggest influences for taking a break before post-secondary education, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty were leading factors, mentioned by 39 percent of respondents.

“You could see students managing the different tradeoffs in their heads of, ‘Is it worth going to college in a time of uncertainty?’ and not being sure that was the college experience that they wanted,” says Leigh.

Twenty-six percent of students said that financial pressure or affordability held them back from immediately pursuing postsecondary education plans. “I’m confused as to what I want to spend the rest of my life doing and don’t want to go into debt straight out of high school for something I probably won’t end up doing,” one student shared.


Costs, uncertainty prompt deferral

The cost of college is a perennial issue that has been long reflected in nationwide data, however, the pandemic has only made the issue more daunting, Leigh says.

“It’s even more stressful and magnified, say, if your parents lost their jobs, or if you lost your parents,” says Leigh. She recalls respondents who expressed having to help fill financial gaps and find work to support their family, or step in to take care of family members during the pandemic. “Trying to keep track of these policies or scholarship opportunities, having that all being done online, just wasn’t the same. Some students kind of disconnected from that process because it was much harder to find someone to answer their questions, while juggling other things they were dealing with at home.”

These cumulative factors, she explains, led to students deciding to take a gap year or two.

The pandemic “took a huge toll on me mentally and emotionally,” wrote survey respondent Destiny. “Having a year to prepare myself for school, it benefited me, but it also took away from a little bit of the experience I was going to have for being a college student.”

Gap years shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a setback. Well-structured ones can be invaluable periods of growth, says Jill Corbin, a certified educational planner and college counselor. “A student that doesn’t succeed in college is also the student who really just isn’t ready,” she says, and adds that it’s OK for students not to be on the same college-bound trajectory. Corbin has seen students have successful gap periods joining programs such as AmeriCorps, getting an internship, or auditing community college classes.

Leigh agrees this decision can be a productive time for students, but adds that “there’s a big inequity about who really gets to take a gap year.”

“You often see higher income students or students that go to schools with more resources that can connect them in ways to have a very rich gap year.” But low-income or first-generation college students attending traditionally underfunded schools might not have the support to pursue the same gap year opportunities. “That year [can turn] into two or three where they’re working certain jobs that maybe aren’t really related to what they hopefully want to do one day.”

“I’m not just a reference to come to when you’re doing research. I become a personal library for our students, because many of our ­students here in the Bronx need that type of one-on-one support.” —Carl Andrews, assistant professor and reference instruction  librarian, Bronx Community College
Photo courtesy of Carl Andrews


Library support through the transition

Other inequities in the college-decision process were exacerbated during the pandemic, Leigh says. In general, the survey found that students wanted more personalized guidance, including help with financial barriers by getting hands-on assistance with aid applications, nonprofits, and community services, and connecting college and career goals more deeply in the classroom. Her team also found that while Black and Latinx students were more likely than their white peers to have progressed further in the enrollment process and more interested in enrolling in education, they were more likely to change or cancel plans due to the pandemic.

Providing personal guidance is a practice that Carl Andrews, assistant professor and reference instruction librarian, takes to heart while working with young people entering Bronx Community College (BCC) in New York City. Since 2013, Andrews has spearheaded freshman library orientation, which plays a major role in the school’s college transition efforts. The majority of students are of Hispanic, Afro-Caribbean, West African, and African American descent—a reflection of the demographics of the South Bronx, says Andrews.

“Many of our students are coming in, and they need support, they need academic support in every way possible,” he says. “And for me, as one of the college librarians, I know that we have databases that support college readiness, academic support, and workplace readiness.”

Andrews emphasizes the need for college librarians to work with local high school teachers and school librarians when possible to prime college-bound students’ information literacy. In 2017, he was the project lead of the Bronx Community College Library High School Collaborative workshop, which aimed to build a better high-school-to-college transition program for incoming students. The workshop brought together high school and college teaching faculty to brainstorm ways to revise curriculum that involved information literacy and critical thinking.

“We learned a lot about why students aren’t leaving high school prepared for college-level research,” he says. That included weakness in critical thinking and “the ability to question information for its authenticity, its accuracy, its relevance, its bias, its appropriateness.”

This foundational training goes a long way. Andrews has seen how information literacy is a “lifelong skill” that “prepares students for the rest of their academic careers and beyond.” Andrews and BCC chemistry professor Dickens Saint Hilaire published a guide from the workshop’s findings, which points to ways high school and college educators and librarians can strengthen students’ research skills. But Andrews says this work must go beyond just academic preparedness.

“I should be a constant, [and] the library should be a constant, throughout all 15 weeks of their first semester,” Andrews says. “I’m not just a reference to come to when you’re doing research, but I become a personal library for our students, because many of our students here in the Bronx need that type of one-on-one support.”


School librarian Janelle Schnacker created a College, Career, and Military Readiness Challenge calendar for her students. Photo by Amanda Cardoza
School librarian Janelle Schnacker created a College, Career, and Military Readiness Challenge calendar for her students.
Photo by Amanda Cardoza


Learning differences

Corbin, the college counselor, also strongly encourages individualized support and transition guidance, which she has found crucial for students with learning differences. Corbin is also director of college and transition counseling at Denver Academy, a private school in Colorado for students with learning differences, such as dyslexia and ADD/ADHD. Students with learning differences are as capable as their peers, but attend four-year colleges at half the rate, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Corbin will go over a student’s interests, high school transcripts, academic strengths, and financial and social-emotional needs. There are some college-readiness skills that are simply not taught in the classroom, she adds.

“For some of my students, they might be able to do the work, but they just forget to turn it in,” Corbin says. Over the last few years, “there was more flexibility in place, there were more instances where teachers said, ‘Get this in when you can,’” Corbin says. One of her students believed that colleges would also loosen expectations for first-year classes. But in reality, college professors might not be so relaxed. “Now we need to reel [students] back in and hold them to the standards that we were before,” she says.

Schnacker adds that some students didn’t have the opportunity to develop “soft skills” during the pandemic. “We’re trying to be mindful that there’s some serious ground we’ve got to make up, not just in academic skills that were lost, but also the life and social skills that they need to be successful moving forward.”

This academic year at MacArthur High School’s library, Schnacker partnered with the school’s College and Career Center to host a College, Career, and Military Readiness Challenge to rebuild some of these skills. Every day in March, Schnacker prompted students with different tasks touching on both academic and soft skills, such as preparing for the SAT, AP, and ACT tests; taking a career and interest matching quiz; building a resume through LearningExpress; exploring college majors through Shmoop; or learning how to search for a job or internship. The library has also held college and career fairs to connect students with professionals and to bridge preparation and coursework into real-world connections.

Other activities asked kids to reflect upon their high school education, life experiences, and interests. “That can be really empowering, whether they’re a senior or a ninth grader,” she says. Today, students have a “fire hose” of options to pursue after graduating high school, which can be exciting, but intimidating to wade through. Schnacker sees the library as a buoy when those waters get overwhelming—a space and resource providing the support and stability students need in times of a lot of uncertainty.

“When I think about college readiness, it’s not so much about every kid going to college. It’s about kids pursuing the things that they’re passionate about and following the path they need to take to get where they want to go,” Schnacker says. “This is where the library can really be critical. We can be that place for exploration.”

Lauren J. Young is a science journalist and an associate editor for Popular Science. Follow her work on Twitter @laurenjyoung617.

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