Student groups withered during COVID. Reviving them hasn’t been easy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on participation in student organizations, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, citing interviews with more than a dozen experts in student affairs and engagement. Increasing students’ engagement in college life is an essential part of improving college retention and completion and addressing students’ mental health, those experts say.

Through involvement in student organizations, students develop skills to relate to people who are different from them,” Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning, at Elon University, tells the Chronicle. “They develop project-management and life skills. They develop leadership skills.”

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Loss of student groups

When the pandemic forced student groups online, those groups struggled to maintain memberships and recruit new students—and saw their leadership pipelines dry up in the process. When students returned to campus, those organizations struggled to regain their footing.

Webster University, a private university in Missouri, lost around 25% of its student organizations during the pandemic. Before COVID-19, Ohio State University had over 1,400 student groups; during the pandemic, that number fell below 1,300. Some of those remaining organizations had no active members as virtual learning left students with little energy to participate in online groups. 

“It was just kind of mentally hard,” Jalalah Muhammad, a senior at Webster said. “It was like a little mental block, cause you were like, ‘Maybe I should get involved,’ but it was like, ‘I’m still here by myself, still not able to do a true connection.’”

The pandemic also disrupted students’ involvement in high school extracurricular activities—experiences that help them develop the confidence and soft skills that would prepare them to fully engage in campus life, experts say. That isolation has had a negative effect on students’ capacity to be involved in groups when they come to college. The 2021 National Student Survey of Engagement reported that 55% of first-year students experienced “substantial increases in depression, hopelessness, or loneliness” due to the pandemic. Undergraduates ages 18-24 were more likely than their older counterparts to feel concerned about their ability to socialize.

Reviving campus life

Participation in campus groups and organizations is one of the most crucial ways to benefit from attending college, concluded the late Ernest T. Pascarella, an emeritus professor of higher education at the University of Iowa, after spending three decades researching the topic.

To encourage students to re-engage in campus life, faculty are training students to take on leadership positions in student organizations, and hoping peer-to-peer advising programs can boost recruitment efforts. Some colleges are working to address food or housing insecurity, mental-health issues, financial need, and other basic-needs barriers that are preventing students from taking part in student groups. Educators are also focused on reminding students why participating in campus life is such a valuable use of their time at college. 

“I think that it is more important for students to hear the ‘why,’ beyond just ‘this is fun, and you meet more friends,’” Lesley Frederick, the vice president for student affairs at Florida-based Valencia College, tells the Chronicle. “I think helping them understand the other value that may not be as obvious for engaging is a really important piece that students are looking for.”

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