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Commentary: The one thing college students shouldn't do this fall

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As chairman of the Columbia College Board of Trustees, parent of twin college freshmen and a business professional, I’ve been immersed in COVID-19 from three different, but related perspectives: policy, parenting and business.

Driving my twins home when their out-of-state colleges closed was certainly a sad time, and one that reinforced how important the social aspect of college is. I saw firsthand the frustration our twins experienced shifting from in-person to online instruction; the impact was particularly significant for our daughter, who is thinking of majoring in art.

The uncertainty about what the fall semester will look like is frustrating; it’s tempting for students to take a gap year, just to feel like they have some control over their lives. My experience in all three roles compels me to offer this advice, to my twins and to all college students: Don’t do it.

Here are four reasons you should return to college in the fall:

First, your job opportunities will be limited. With unemployment expected to exceed 20%, there will be fewer jobs available to tide you over. While my wife and I love our twins, having them sitting at home is as unacceptable to us as it is unenjoyable to them.

Second, postponing a year at college impacts your career and lifelong earnings. While starting salaries are not high, the year lost means one less year at your peak earning status. And candidly, it’s tougher to get back in the rhythm and rigor of higher education after a year away.

Third, this year could be the most valuable of your college career. When Columbia College President Peter Mitchell announced that the college will reopen with in-person classes, he encouraged students to return “because each student will be learning how to navigate the post COVID-19 new normal in an incredibly supportive and affirming environment.”

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COVID-19 is changing all aspects of life, including college. The new normal will be a blend of in-person and online, with restrictions such as masks and social distancing. In short, massive disruption and change in the way you learn and live will occur. Yet you will have the opportunity to develop resiliency, determination and grit — all with the support of faculty and staff dedicated to helping you succeed.

As a trustee, I was updated frequently on how quickly — and based on student comments, how effectively — our faculty moved to remote learning. Like most colleges and universities, we are investing significant resources in faculty development and technology to enable the college to pivot between in-person and online this year.

The ability to pivot, whether in learning or in life, will be an essential skill. There will be jobs created in the next four years that we can’t imagine. Mastering the pivot will be a key to your success during and after college.

Finally, you’ll have the opportunity to embrace online learning. From my business role, I can tell you that if you don’t like online learning, you’d be wise to master that skill set. At most businesses — from auto repair shops to corporations — face-to-face training is now the exception. Almost all training and professional development is done digitally with video modules. The ability to learn remotely is an advantage longterm, even if it’s frustrating in the short term.

The advice I gave to my twins holds true for all college students: Stay the course, approach this year as an incredible time to live and learn, and be creative in the ways you interact socially while adhering to the restrictions necessitated by COVID-19. Be sure to seek opportunities in the midst of adversity. And most of all, don’t forget to pivot.

Toby W. Goodlett is a Columbia banker and immediate past chairman of the Columbia College Board of Trustees.

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