The value of higher education

The value of higher education

Numerous outlets ranging from the great daily and weekly state newspapers throughout North Dakota to national outlets like the New York Times have been doing their very best to cover the ongoing and shifting challenges of the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Understandably, that focus has centered mainly on physical health, the transmission rates, and the economic challenges accompanying this global challenge.

One of the largest problems that we’re starting to see stem from COVID-19 is the massive toll it’s already taken from those on its frontlines. Doctors, nurses, testing teams, contact tracers, and now, our faculty, staff and students. That toll all too often manifests as severe challenges to mental and behavioral health.

We can see two things clearly. The first is that while nearly all students in our higher education system occasionally prefer the convenience of an online class, they overwhelmingly prefer the traditional interaction they receive from in-person classes. The second is that our younger generations are more open about mental and behavioral health concerns than ever before.

When pressed into social distancing, isolation, quarantine and a more online setting, that sets the stage for many students to develop and exhibit growing mental health issues. These topics were addressed when our state’s public educational organizations and boards met last month. I applaud our educators for taking this on, but work will remain to ensure that our students have access to positive mental health outcomes.

This is the time in students’ lives when they’re expected to grow, develop and thrive more than any other. We mustn’t stop at only preparing them in academic or technical ways; we have to provide them with access to services that help alleviate the challenges that’ve been brought about by the expectation made of them in the first place: go get an education.

Telehealth services have continued from this past spring when campuses shut down through this fall to meet the needs of students. At our campuses, counselors are virtually meeting with students in quarantine regularly and making accommodations for students that want to meet in person and those that want to stick with telehealth. However, the strain continues.

The value of higher education then isn’t just in any particular set of knowledge instilled in its students, but from how those students can grow and develop into healthy, engaged citizens. That doesn’t happen if our system is cut so drastically that we can’t support student health and wellness, never mind academics or extracurriculars.

I’ve heard amazing stories about the incredible work our faculty and staff are doing even while so overextended. But those amazing stories can belie what’s prompted them to begin with: that our students are being asked to find “business as usual” in a global pandemic that threatens their health and the stability of their institutions. But, business as usual likely won’t arrive without a vaccine. Until that time we need to remain as supportive and encouraging as possible as students and our greater campus communities navigate unprecedented challenges.

The CARES Act emergency funding helped our staff and faculty adjust quickly to changing needs and is appreciated for the vital work it helped continue. Those diligent individuals will continue to adjust to emerging challenges we may not have seen yet, not to mention the growing trend in students utilizing mental and behavioral health services. We will continue to seek ways to help them face the obstacles the COVID-19 pandemic is placing in their way. That way, they will be as free as they can be to continue offering our students opportunities to succeed and grow into the next generation of our state’s leaders. That is the value we gain from a strong higher education system.