By Lindsey Skerker, Director of College Counseling and Placement at The Craig School
In a recent article about the most expensive colleges in the US, President Brian Casey of Colgate University summed it up best: “The business model of higher education in the United States has been broken since 1635.” Alluding to Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the US, President Casey made a profound point about the layered history of US colleges and universities. Much of higher education as an entity has been built on a foundation of unequal access. Parts have been mended over time, but there are certainly still cracks in the foundation. Originally, higher education was solely intended for white able-bodied, well-educated men of certain ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. That left much of the population wholly excluded from accessing education in general – let alone higher education – for centuries since the founding of America’s first university. Of course, the educational landscape has evolved since then, and much will continue to change in our lifetime. Within the past 18 months since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, K-12 and higher education has had to rapidly adapt, and it has been hard enough for us counselors, let alone students and families, to keep up. Of course, COVID has been incredibly difficult for the education sector, with lasting ripple effects which will impact this generation of learners for years to come. However, I believe it has brought about certain equitable adaptations that would have never occurred so quickly in the “before COVID era.” Especially as a counselor for students with learning differences and learning disabilities (LDs), I have been able to witness some silver linings in the postsecondary planning process, many of which will have an immense impact on the graduating Classes of the 2020s and beyond.
Before COVID entered our vernacular in 2020, many of our LD students were not just struggling with their usual ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc. but much of that was compounded by mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20% of American adults and 17% of American youth (ages 6-17) experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. Furthermore, coming on the heels of one of the biggest news stories of 2019 – “The Varsity Blues College Admissions Scandal” – in combination with the once-in-a-century pandemic was a huge wake-up call to the higher education sector. The need for a more holistic and less mental-health-shattering admissions process was more apparent than ever before.
When counseling students from the Classes of 2020 and onwards, I have called them the pioneers in this Wild West new world of COVID and beyond. As colleges & universities became “test-optional” or “test-blind” in the blink of an eye in 2020, that in and of itself was a huge marker for equitable change and forward thinking in the college admissions process.
These “test-optional” or “test-blind” (which do not require SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process), seem like they will be here to stay for a large portion of colleges and universities. Some colleges have pledged to keep these policies through at least the Class of 2023, and others like the University of California system have done away with them altogether (note: refer to FairTest.org for updated information). This increase of a more holistic application review process has kept students’ mental health at the forefront, as college admissions counselors understand on a greater level the stressors and anxieties that applicants face. Upon counseling LD students and families where I work, I advise that if testing is overly anxiety-inducing, then students should not feel forced to take the SAT or ACT! Now with the reopening of in-person schooling, many students are back in classrooms five days a week for eight hours each day, just trying to get reacclimated to schooling and social situations. And for LD students with accommodations of extended time or testing over multiple days, if that sounds anxiety inducing enough from the get-go, I strongly encourage students to put their mental health first! For Juniors and Seniors, I recommend that they use the time to work on the Common App Personal Statement Essay or supplemental essays. Instead of spending energy on a test which may do more harm than good to one’s mental health, spend that time on a hobby or activity (perhaps even a non-technology-based endeavor) that “sparks joy” – which although cliché at this point, is an incredibly important life skill in my opinion. However, for students who are up for the challenge of testing and know that their mental health is in check, I would say perhaps give it a go. But for others who know that their plate is already way too full, opt out of the testing process to take care of that ever-important mental health & well-being.
I like to think that another silver lining is the increased amount of autonomy and options that now exist in education and the postsecondary process. Students have experienced in-person, hybrid, and remote models of learning over the past year and a half. They have come to understand what works best for them as a student. This experience can help them to determine a potential college or career path, knowing the best environment for their needs. Again, as a counselor, I’ve found that certain students with social anxiety thrived in the online school space. They felt comfortable and safer than they ever had at school, which harkens back to the Safety & Security tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. They were able to avoid the stereotypical high school drama. Some students will carry these lessons with them into the future, and this might determine the format in which they pursue college or a career. This individualized approach coupled with more autonomous educational opportunities will hopefully benefit students now and in the future.
Overall, I’ve appreciated the greater emphasis on really examining the “why” behind a postsecondary decision, especially during this era. Instead of just going to college because that is what a student thinks they are “supposed” to do, it really forced them to think about the “why” behind it. Students and families have been forced to consider if they wanted to attend (and pay for) college classes online last year or in-person now with COVID lurking around campus corridors. Some students fully re-evaluated their decisions and chose to take a gap year or stay close to home to gain work or volunteer experience. I think that this era has really made our society question some past “norms” that perhaps have been damaging to some students with LDs. People have hopefully recognized now that just because students are chronologically 18 years old doesn’t mean that all of them are ready at the exact same time to do the exact same thing! I think we can finally begin to acknowledge that some students need extra time to mature, or perhaps they have different priorities now, and I consider that a huge leap forward in changing the cultural narrative around these types of post-high school graduation conversations. Whether you’re a student, parent, or educator, my sincere hope is that some of these silver linings make their way into your postsecondary playbook.
Further Reading & Articles of Interest
- Anxiety in Teens is Rising: What’s Going On?
- Colleges Seek Virtual Mental Health Services
- Coping With Teenage Anxiety: Readers Share Their Stories
- Mental Health Resources in College from NAMI
- Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal Documentary on Netflix
- Protecting Kids’ Mental Health During College Admissions
- Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright
- The SAT & ACT Have Issues. Here Are Three Ideas to Replace the College Admissions Tests
- What are learning and thinking differences?
- World Mental Health Day Has Huge Implications For Workplace Leaders
About the Author: Lindsey Skerker received her Master of Science in Education in School Counseling from Monmouth University and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Colgate University. Lindsey was previously the College & Career Counselor at the Purnell School and is currently the Director of College Counseling & Placement at the Craig School in Northern New Jersey. In both her counseling roles, she has worked extensively to advocate for students with learning differences and disabilities. Lindsey is going back to school as a doctoral candidate through the Monmouth University educational leadership program. One of Lindsey’s greatest joys in life is being a dog mom to her “pandemic puppy” Chip. He is a Shihpoo (shihtzu poodle mix) who loves making new friends, exploring the Garden State, and enjoying time down at the Jersey Shore. Lindsey is incredibly passionate about working with students & families through the ever-evolving postsecondary planning process. Feel free to reach out to her at LindseySkerker@gmail.com