COVID-19 will worsen Israeli universities' dropout epidemic - opinion

DEMONSTRATORS CALL for financial aid and equality in higher education, outside the Council for Higher Education offices in Jerusalem in October. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

DEMONSTRATORS CALL for financial aid and equality in higher education, outside the Council for Higher Education offices in Jerusalem in October.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The academic year is upon us with a record 30% rise in registrations at institutions of higher education. For the heads of these institutions, there is another challenge that must be considered: dealing with dropouts.
The leap in registration for higher education stems from causes related to COVID-19, such as the inability to travel abroad and lack of employment for young people. This has created an opportunity that should be exploited to provide tools for young people to integrate into the future job market, train them for new professions, and reduce social and economic disparities between different population groups.

In the coming year, most learning will be done online, without direct contact between students, peers and lecturers, and without an institutional system able to offer support to these students, making the risk of dropping out much greater.
Dropout from higher education can have a broad and devastating significance for years to come. If we are unable to preserve, train and accompany students, and provide them with appropriate tools, we might damage their social mobility and their ability to integrate into the workforce. Dropping out in these days of pandemic and economic crisis will have far-reaching consequences.
The most dramatic damage will be the widening social gaps in Israel and damage to the country’s periphery. Dropouts from undergraduate studies are significantly more common among lower socioeconomic strata, first-generation higher education students, minorities, students from the periphery, etc.
There are several excellent programs preventing dropout in the first year of undergraduate studies. These programs rely on early intervention, identifying difficulties at early stages and providing specific assistance, educational tools, and more. In places where a Social Impact Bond program to prevent student dropout program has been implemented, there has been major success. Academic leaders must now work intensely to implement similar programs so that students don’t become “just another number” in their academic institutions, especially in this uncertain period. Students need to receive personal, individualized support in order to lead them to a better future.
Such initiatives can help prevent an epidemic of “silent dropouts” – students who slowly lose the desire to learn, lack the tools to continue, lack support and personal contact, and ultimately stop coming to classes. Institutions might only discover that these students have dropped out at the end of the year. Locating students who are at risk of dropping out early in their academic careers is the key to preventing dropout.
Israel relies on an educated, skilled work force to thrive as the Start-Up Nation. In normal times, barriers to the acquisition of higher education include socioeconomic factors, language difficulties and poor motivation.
However, during these days of COVID-19, we find that some students are either too young or emotionally immature to combine academia with the loss of personal contact that is typical with online studies. The inability to, so to speak, “touch” the student poses an additional challenge.
I fear that those who dropout in these difficult days will incur an even higher price than in normal times. That price, beyond the individual level, could possibly include harming national resilience and social cohesion, widening social gaps that already exist in Israel.
The heads of the academic institutions face a complex task. I call upon these educational leaders to act in concert with the government to adopt an active policy of dropout prevention. This is something we must do to protect the future generation, prepare them for future employment, reduce social disparities and ensure that in the midst of our current health and economic crises, these students will ultimately be able to integrate into the workforce and economic markets


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