College-bound high school seniors are facing stiffer obstacles during the admissions process this year as they balance a return to in-person learning alongside pandemic-induced mental health challenges.
The transition from online classes last year to full-time in-person schooling this fall took a toll on students physically and emotionally, said Robyn Lady, who sits on the board of directors for the National Association for College Admission Counseling and is also director of student services at Chantilly High School in Fairfax, Virginia.
“I will say that the seniors came back this year more like a deer in the headlights,” Lady said. “Then you put the college process on top of that — it’s hard to overcome.”
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in adolescent mental health caused by challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic on top of prior challenges. The AAP noted before the pandemic that youth mental health concerns and suicide have steadily increased within the past decade. In fact, by 2018 suicide was the second leading source of death for those between the ages of 10 to 24.
School counselors, meanwhile, are taking on more now as students navigate college admissions and return to in-person learning all at once, said Deirdra Hawkes, director of programs and advocacy at the American School Counselor Association. Counselors are keeping tabs on how students are doing emotionally through the process in addition to helping facilitate the application process, she said.
“Counselors are still doing what they did prior to the pandemic, but with maybe a larger eyeball on how the students are managing the process this time around,” Hawkes said.
Ken Jackson, a school counselor at Decatur High School in Georgia, said he’s always believed mental and physical health should come first, particularly when students are applying to college.
“I don’t believe that mental health and good emotional health should be [or] can be separated from the college admissions process,” Jackson said.
Teaching students how to navigate their own mental health should be a key component to preparing students for applying to college, he said. The added stress and pressure of the application process has always impacted student mental health in some ways, he said, particularly when students rely on college admission as a measure of their self-worth. There’s a need now more than ever to reframe the process to address mental well-being, he said.
Joseph Williams, an associate professor in the counselor education program at the University of Virginia, said many of his college students who are in counseling internships at K-12 schools are witnessing some of the most severe mental health issues he has seen in his 10 years in education.
“Kids are really struggling, and I’m not sure that we’re actually really addressing it,” he said.
Jackson also said he’s noticed an unprecedented rate of mental health concerns among students. The number of high-level mental health cases he’s seen in the first few months of school this year equals what he would normally see in an entire academic year, he said.
Lady agrees it’s important to tell parents nothing is worth sacrificing a student’s social-emotional learning when pursuing college. It’s okay for students to take a gap year or begin working to financially support their family if needed, she said.
Something that could help students better balance SEL and college admissions would be providing more choice in the classes students take in high school so they’re more invested and get an idea of what they might want to study in college, Lady said.
Williams said it’s important to acknowledge schools were not built to include SEL supports that acknowledge the whole student.
Schools do not often have integrated tests that monitor student wellness, he said, suggesting that similar resources be put toward mental health testing as for measuring academic progress. For instance, schools could regularly test for students’ wellbeing just as districts do to measure academic progress, he said.
“I also understand schools were never designed to do that. It calls into question maybe we should rethink how we’re doing school,” Williams said. “Maybe we should rethink about what we’re prioritizing. Maybe we should more intentionally bring [in] healthy, sustainable partnerships with culturally responsive mental health providers in the communities.”
There generally needs to be more resources to support school counselors as well, Williams said. Hawkes agreed, adding that some schools remain short on counselors.
Another challenge for counselors is keeping students hopeful about their future and about going to college amid the pandemic, Hawkes said.
Counselors need to let students know that positives remain, she said. For instance, they can encourage students to feel success each step along the way, whether that’s submitting a college application, getting an acceptance or receiving a significant financial aid package, Hawkes said.
“You’ll have those same bright spots that you had before, but right now, because the pandemic has created so many challenges, it makes the bright spots even brighter,” Hawkes said.