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I Am Not an Outlier: Two Years On, Part Two

Written By: Aly Hill The higher education sector faces a crucial set of decisions that will shape its future for decades to come. While the pandemic has amplified the strain on an already vulnerable higher education sector, institutions have the opportunity to transform in proactive and student-centric ways.

To better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted higher ed students and capture student voices, the MAPS team created the I Am Not an Outlier campaign. In 2020, we sat down with six higher ed students from various backgrounds to track and document their stories throughout the pandemic. In 2021, we caught up with them to learn more about their higher education experiences. We explore six emerging themes among students in higher ed in a two-part series. Analysis of the first three themes can be found in Part One and the remaining three, below.

Increasing Institutional Flexibility

During the pandemic, hybrid learning, recorded lectures, modified attendance, and deadline policies were among the rapid and widespread adaptations designed to mitigate mental health challenges among higher ed students. Today, many of these changes persist, with colleges and universities offering more hybrid courses and moving away from once-rigid grading and testing policies. Yet, as the Covid-19 pandemic wanes, and institutions reimagine the future of higher ed, many face a moment of reckoning: whether they should maintain this flexibility or reinstate the once commonplace policies. Among the students interviewed for ‘I Am Not an Outlier,’ many stressed the importance of institutional flexibility in advancing a more equitable and student-centric future.

Divyam, a pre-med student, found success in courses in which professors were flexible, responsive to student needs, and listened to student feedback. He believes student success post-pandemic requires institutions to continue these practices of flexibility and student responsiveness.

“Yeah, we’re adults as college students, but this is the first time we’re really being adults...Being a little bit more relaxed about it is the biggest thing,” said Divyam. “That word – relaxed – is the best word we can use...don’t change everything, don’t give up on your standard, but just relax a little bit.”

By relaxing these standards and accommodating varied learning needs, institutions can better address students' individual needs. Erika, a low-income student studying international relations, underscored the need for more personalized learning, emphasizing the importance of individualized academic experiences. By attending to a variety of student pathways in education and tailoring offerings to their unique needs, Erika believes that universities can help students achieve greater success in the evolving higher education landscape.

“There’s a lot of different reasons people choose to go to college and disaggregating those and providing experiences that are specifically attuned to that is really valuable, especially given how much higher ed is changing,” said Erika. “I’d want to stress the importance of flexibility and individual academic experiences – the same styles of support are different for different people.”

Individualizing student pathways to success requires understanding the full spectrum of student circumstances, a point stressed by Carolyn, a non-traditional student. As an increasing number of students work while attending school, Carolyn believes that an inclusive approach with more diverse course options and class times would enable more students to pursue and succeed in higher education and ultimately move into fulfilling careers.

“Our ability to get students through classes in a way that builds them up rather than having to just take what’s available to them will make the college experience more valid and valuable...Making us fit into these cookie cutters – it’s a hindrance that just doesn’t need to be there,” said Carolyn. Students interviewed for ‘I Am Not an Outlier’ agreed this flexibility shouldn’t come from professors alone, but should instead be reflected in larger institutional policies.

Designing Institutional Policies That Serve Students

Student resources, tution, and diversity are among the many factors that decision-makers are considering as they enroll students into the ‘new normal’. While individual professors and departments adopted changes during the pandemic, ‘I Am Not an Outlier’ participants expressed the need for institutional policies that serve diverse student populations.

Dante, an American immigrant studying architecture, reflected on the role of universities in ensuring affordable tuition for its students, a guarantee that Dante believes will pave the way for greater access to higher ed and help students achieve improved career outcomes. “The University of Utah cannot run...without their students - It’s not going to be successful, and I feel like recognizing the students is going to make a huge difference,” said Dante. Indeed, research shows that institutions that fail to provide affordable education to students will disproportionately affect students of color, first generation students, and disenfranchised students, exacerbating declining enrollments and causing institutions to struggle.

Diversity in higher education is associated with a range of positive outcomes including a more inclusive curriculum, increased intellectual engagement, and community building. For Tammy, an Indigenous student studying education, inclusive enrollment and curriculum matter. While many of Tammy’s courses included social justice within the curriculum, she wishes the program went beyond the surface level and was aimed at serving students of color like her, rather than solely informing white students. Moreover, Tammy expressed her desire to see universities take a more proactive approach to admitting a more diverse student body and developing more active representation among professors. “They need to have more people of color enrolled,” Tammy said. “It’s one thing to talk about social justice and say that you’re going to support students of color, and then it’s another thing to actually have diversity at your school.”

Empowering Student Voices

For some students, the pandemic was a turning point. As students shared their needs for more flexibility and student-centric policies, they reflected on their own agency in navigating their academic and post-academic careers.

For students like Carolyn, this awareness prompted her to become an advocate for herself, becoming more assertive about her needs and more actively engaged in her work and education. Periods of isolation taught Carolyn that she alone is in control of her future, a realization that led her to prioritize herself. “The last year has taught me that, in order to be successful, I have to be actively engaged in what I want,” Carolyn said.

Others, like Erika, began to prioritize their identities and activities outside of education. Like many during the pandemic, Erika expanded her hobbies. But it was her reflexivity that led Erika to evaluate the role and reason behind each of her hobbies that she found the most rewarding. “Something that has been huge for me over the past year that has occupied a lot of my time and has been huge for my taking time, without question, to assess the components of my life and my time and think about how they got there,” Erika said.

Moving Forward

A desire for increased institutional flexibility, policies that better serve students, and growing self-awareness were common themes among higher education students during the pandemic. While these themes are not representative of all student experiences, they offer a brief snapshot into the issues affecting higher ed students during this time. By centering student voices in decision-making spaces and facilitating a culture of inclusivity, innovation, & co-creation, higher education institutions will be better equipped to address student barriers, facilitate student success, and manage future crises.

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