The COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history. On the other hand, it has also stimulated innovation within the education sector making the future of learning promising amidst uncertainty. This in-depth look at how this pandemic changed the face of psychology education foresees several trends.

– Community Force 

The pandemic and resulting economic downturn are affecting psychology education at every level.

Bridget Hearon, Ph.D., is worried. Even before the arrival of COVID-19, Albright College, the Reading, Pennsylvania, liberal arts school where she is an assistant professor of psychology, was concerned about the precipitous drop in the number of college-age students expected by 2026. The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, warns of a “looming enrollment crisis” that will hit the Northeast and Upper Midwest—areas with the greatest concentration of colleges—hardest.

Now, COVID-19 has brought unprecedented new financial challenges to the nation’s colleges and universities. “I don’t think we’re the most at-risk college out there, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m 100% confident we’ll be able to weather the storm,” says Hearon.

She’s not alone in her concerns. In a survey of 300 college and university presidents conducted by the American Council on Education in June, the long-term financial viability of their institutions was the third most pressing issue, after fall enrollment and plans for the fall term.

Declining enrollment is a top concern. Many students and their parents have lost jobs and can no longer afford school. Students who do enroll will likely need more financial help.

Psychology is already feeling the crunch, at all levels of training. Virtual education may proliferate even as students question the value of online learning. Internship sites are closing. Graduate programs are cutting financial support to students and wondering if they can recruit new cohorts of students.

These developments raise questions about “the ability of universities to really devote the time and energy to the large societal problems that universities are known for addressing,” says Jason Washburn, Ph.D., who heads the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology and is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Psychology education and training must continue to be flexible and adaptable so that these new challenges don’t harm the field and a world that needs psychology’s expertise, he and other psychologists say.

Although it’s impossible to predict what will happen given the fast-changing nature of the pandemic, psychology educators foresee several trends:

Budgets will be tight.

Money woes as a result of increased expenses and reduced enrollments have already led some universities to institute hiring freezes. Others are cutting staff. In July, for example, the City University of New York (CUNY) laid off almost 3,000 adjunct and part-time professors. Regular full-time faculty are vulnerable to layoffs, too. In July, the University of Akron announced plans to eliminate 178 positions—including almost 100 faculty members. When combined with earlier layoffs and voluntary retirements, that would mean a loss of almost a quarter of the university’s full-time faculty since the pandemic began. The result of all these layoffs will be increased class loads for other faculty. Other institutions are worried about the economic crisis’s impact on research funding, including start-up packages for new faculty.

Financial support for students is also taking a hit. “We are hearing of programs being told that their universities will be cutting financial support, such as teaching assistantships, for Ph.D. students,” says Washburn. Some programs are even wondering whether they should temporarily halt student recruitment, he says. Although he hasn’t heard of any graduate programs facing closure, he worries that an inability to recruit for a couple of years could jeopardize programs’ accreditation.

The budget crunch is also affecting internships. About 10 internship sites have closed this year, likely because of COVID-19-related financial pressures, says Jeff Baker, Ph.D., ABPP, executive director of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. “We have also had many trainees who have been impacted due to preexisting health issues and have concerns about attending an internship that requires face-to-face or on-site attendance,” he says. In addition, some doctoral programs are not allowing their students to participate in internships that require travel.

Schools of professional psychology may be better equipped to ride out the tough times, says Francine Conway, Ph.D., who heads the National Council of Schools and Programs of Professional Psychology. “There has always been a shortage of psychologists, but the need is even more so now with the COVID pandemic and also the racial reckoning that is occurring across the U.S. and globally,” says Conway, who is dean of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “There’s a need for psychologists of color especially.”

She also predicts that many newly unemployed people will do what they have always done—go back to school for training in a marketable area like mental health services.

Some will be disproportionately hit.

Research-oriented students at all levels are struggling to get the experience they need to move ahead in their research careers, says Michael Young, Ph.D., who chairs the Council of Graduate Departments of Psychology. Undergraduates who hope to go on to graduate school in psychology or to medical school typically gain research experience by helping to collect data in mentors’ labs, notes Young, who heads the department of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. If students are not allowed back into the labs, he says, “we have to figure out how to ensure they will get the experience they need for grad school or med school applications next year.” Safety procedures such as staggered schedules may also result in less lab time even if labs do open back up to undergraduates, he adds.

Students training to specialize in neuropsychological or psychological testing may also see their training delayed, Washburn says. While training programs did a good job of transitioning psychotherapy online, he says, many programs are struggling with how to transition to doing testing virtually. “For a lot of these folks, the result has been a shutdown in terms of any sort of training,” he says. Even once in-person testing is possible again, he adds, it will occur under very different circumstances.

First-generation students, immigrants, and low-income students are also suffering, says Anissa Moody, Ph.D., an associate professor of social sciences at CUNY’s Queensborough Community College. Increased course loads and the elimination of language support and other resources that can help students thrive will hit these students hardest, she says. By increasing course loads, for example, schools are making it difficult for instructors to provide attention, feedback, and support and thus limiting students’ development and affecting which students enter psychology’s pipeline, she says.

That’s a catastrophe, given the nation’s need to address both the pandemic and the enduring problem of racism, Moody says. “We have experienced a national trauma with COVID, and psychology could play a big role,” she says, adding that psychology also has a role to play in ending racism. “I hope we’ll position ourselves so that people look to us more and lean on us more.”

Education may move increasingly online.

Online education—especially asynchronous programs—can increase access to students who might otherwise be unable to squeeze school in between work, family, or other obligations. But as colleges and universities consider maintaining at least some distance learning as a way of boosting enrollment, students and educators alike wonder if online education can ever be as effective.

“Zoom classes are mainly the professor speaking to you,” says Jessica Nixon, who graduated from Albright with a health psychology degree in May. “It was harder to retain the information.” Plus, she says, studying from home—where her mother was suffering through a mild case of COVID-19—was distracting.

Online education also can’t provide the deep engagement of face-to-face teaching, says Roshni Choksi, a psychology major at California State University, Long Beach, who aspires to become a neuroscientist. For one, it’s easier to just look up answers on Google than to seek help from a professor, teaching assistant, or fellow student, which is one way students learn to communicate with and understand people, says Choksi. “In-person in a classroom, there’s no easy way out,” she says. “If everything is online, it’s not going to be a good education for students.”

In addition, having to work exclusively online has stalled Choksi’s research. Unable to use the animal models she needs, she is stuck in the literature review phase. “If I don’t have my results, how am I going to finish a paper, do a poster presentation at a conference and move forward?” she asks.

If online higher education proliferates, a two-tiered educational system could emerge, with online-only students experiencing a big disadvantage, says Christina Shane-Simpson, Ph.D., co-chair of APA’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education (CABE) and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. Students who opt for online education—whether solely or as part of a hybrid model—won’t have the same levels of mentoring by instructors and bonding with other students or the same access to student organizations and on-campus activities, she points out.

Students may also find it harder to learn skills in addition to content, as professors struggle with how to bring traditionally hands-on courses like research methods online. “What we might start to see are the haves and the have-nots,” Shane-Simpson says.

The move toward increasing online learning is already changing hiring practices at some institutions, says Shane-Simpson. “Colleagues who are on hiring committees are asking more about the online experience of teaching and how people provide continuous support to students when teaching in an online space,” she notes.

Recognizing that some online teaching is inevitable, instructors are eager to learn new ways to build community among online learners. “One of the things that online education has been challenged by is student retention,” says Karen Brakke, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Spelman College in Atlanta. “If we can bring the quality of online courses up more consistently—to include community to the same extent that in-person classes do—we will serve students well.” One idea is to focus on community-building in the synchronous portions of online learning, says Brakke.

Although she is still working on how to achieve that for students who aren’t able to participate synchronously, she is considering using a “community of inquiry” model in which students share their experiences and collaborate as they delve into a topic.

Community college enrollment may boom.

In contrast to traditional four-year colleges and universities, community colleges may see an enrollment surge of as much as 20% this fall, according to a report by Eduventures Research. These local institutions may be more attractive as a low-cost educational option to both low-income students who have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic’s impact and adults seeking to retool their skills in a tough economy, the report predicts. Plus, current four-year college students may choose to temporarily attend a community college closer to home rather than pay their usual tuition for online learning at their home institutions, the report adds.

But at the same time, many community colleges are facing big budget cuts. California’s community college system, for example, has taken a big financial hit because of the COVID-19-related deficit in the state’s budget.

“If there aren’t enough sections to meet demand, there’s going to be a problem,” says CABE co-chair Jaclyn Ronquillo-Adachi, Ph.D., of Cerritos College in Norwalk, California. Slots in some fall classes filled up almost immediately when the college opened enrollment in June, with waiting lists overflowing, she reports. While more enrollment is good for the college, she says, it could also create competition for classes that students need to graduate and hinder their efforts to complete their degrees.

Undergraduates may forgo psychology. 

Students are increasingly turning to majors they think will best guarantee them jobs once they graduate, says Lynn Pasquerella, Ph.D., president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “We are seeing colleges and universities that are cutting their arts and humanities programs and, in some cases, social science programs and focusing more on narrow technical training,” she says. While psychology continues to be a popular major and the pandemic may attract students interested in exploring the questions COVID-19 raises about human behavior and mental health, the discipline may not be immune to that trend toward a vocational focus.

David Kreiner, Ph.D., who leads the Association of Heads of Departments of Psychology, is one educator who worries that students may eschew psychology majors in favor of “more practical” areas such as business or computer science.

“A very common question we get from students and their families is, ‘What can you do with a psychology degree?’” says Kreiner, who chairs the School of Nutrition, Kinesiology and Psychological Science at the University of Central Missouri. “Because what many have heard is that you can’t really do anything with it except go to graduate school.” That option may not be appealing to students—and parents—who may now be unemployed, already saddled with student debt, and facing the prospect of graduating into a rough economy. That could have big implications for the psychology pipeline, he says.

Students often don’t realize that a psychology major can prepare them for a variety of careers beyond clinical positions, such as sales, teaching, research, and management. That’s why Kreiner is urging psychology departments to educate students about the varied career paths, pointing to resources like CABE’s “The Skillful Psychology Student: Prepared for Success in the 21st Century Workplace.”

Says Pasquerella, “The best preparation for work, citizenship, and life is a liberal education that integrates the arts, humanities, and social sciences with STEM disciplines.”

Via How COVID-19 is Changing Psychology Education