Take a deep breath and think back briefly on the last three years. How much collective trauma has the world experienced? Many of the college students of today, and particularly those who transitioned from childhood to adulthood during COVID-19, are struggling with the impacts of surviving a global pandemic. More than 200,000 children lost a parent or guardian during the pandemic. Even more children experienced or watched their families suffer through pandemic-related financial, educational, professional and emotional setbacks that have shaped who they are and how they think.
In short, this generation’s high school experience was framed against a backdrop of uncertainty and risk. The result is a national cohort of current and incoming college students who hold a different view of what it means to be a college student and of what the college experience should be like. Their needs are different than many faculty may be used to, and perhaps even more complex. Today’s college students, for example, struggle in greater numbers with anxiety and mental health concerns. In the 2021-2022 academic year, college students’ anxiety and depression soared to historic levels with 44% reporting some depression in the prior two weeks, and 37% reporting an anxiety disorder. An incredible 83% said emotional or mental difficulties had hindered their academic performance during the past month.
What does all this mean for faculty?
This year ― as in 2022 ― we commissioned research to take a closer look at the experiences and perspectives of over 1,000 educators at two- and four-year institutions around the country, and in particular how they were faring in the wake of a global crisis. We wanted to know how they feel about their jobs, what their workday is like and what they are dealing with in their professional lives. Among the top challenges faculty cited in our “Faces of Faculty” report was the need to adapt to and understand students’ changing needs and expectations ― for example the pervasive expectation that deadlines will be extended.
Our research confirmed that many faculty members are having to delve into areas of student life that weren’t a prominent part of their roles before ― and perhaps unsurprisingly, this now includes mental health counseling. Some 40% of faculty, in fact, said that the need to provide counseling assistance for students dealing with mental stress and mental health concerns was a challenge this year, up from 34% in 2022. Around half of our faculty respondents – a similar number as last year ― say they feel a need to engage in constant communications with students outside of class time.
Empathy and boundaries are key
These new asks of faculty are not always welcome. Even the most caring educator may be dealing with their own personal and professional challenges, meaning ‘one more thing’ may simply be too much to handle ― especially when it infringes on much-needed downtime. For other faculty, these new norms hint at a generation of students who struggle with perceived entitlement and a lack of discipline.
“I find that it’s necessary to have more one-on-one communication with students about grades and missing assignments than was needed in the past,” explained an adjunct professor who responded to the survey. “Students seem less able to organize themselves, even with all of the digital tools available.”
Despite faculty frustrations with students’ changing needs, what we’re seeing overall is a higher education landscape in which educators are learning to respond with empathy and a respect for their own boundaries and needs. They’re largely demonstrating resourcefulness and flexibility in how they help students achieve academic success ― whether in the form of relaxed deadlines, or clearer policies about expectations and academic integrity. Of faculty members who feel comfortable addressing new student expectations themselves, some 79% say they’re being less rigid and more accommodating in their dealings with students. Around a quarter say they are updating their syllabi and class policy language for clarity.
“Since COVID, more and more students are missing class, claiming mental health issues, and asking for extensions of deadlines,” shared one professor who responded to the survey.
“I happily grant these because I have compassion for the students. But only up to a point…I know when I am being hoodwinked,” the professor continued.
Where students need support, so do faculty members
Vitally, the changing expectations and behaviors of students is an area where faculty themselves could benefit from more support. Whether that comes in the form of IT support to help fight the rise in student plagiarism, or financial reimbursement for faculty who spend time and resources learning how to adapt to students changing needs ― there are many ways in which institutions can ensure faculty are getting what they need to thrive on the job.
However, for higher education leaders, the best way to open the door to clearer communications and stronger support may be the simplest; one that will be very familiar to faculty members who have asked it to students. That is the question, “What do you need in order to be successful?”
Read more insights into the working lives of educators in the full “Faces of Faculty” report.