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By Richard Burnett

Finishing college has never been a walk in the park, but reaching the finish line may have never been tougher than in recent years — from the covid pandemic to its aftermath of soaring costs and job market uncertainty.

The covid era appears to have taken a toll, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a non-profit group that studies higher education trends. According to its latest report, U.S. college completion rates flattened overall in 2023 — for the third straight year, after five years of steadily rising.

Despite an apparent malaise in graduation nationally, some experts said there remains a silver lining: Colleges that invested in expanding their student success services held steady in terms of graduation during covid. Otherwise, the completion figures could have been much worse, said Bridget Burns, CEO of the University Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Given the complete upending of our world for a couple of years, I’m surprised it’s not a much bigger decline,” Burns told Inside Higher Ed, when the data was published in November. “The fact that completion rates are only flat is a testament to this [student success] work.”

That’s good news for Beacon College, which for years has invested in student success services such as learning specialists, tutoring, mentoring, counseling, and career guidance. As a result, it has continued to post robust results for its neurodiverse students. Beacon’s six-year completion rate reached 63 percent in 2023, almost one point higher than the national mark.

Those results stand out even more when compared to the completion rates of neurodiverse students at mainstream colleges, which reportedly range from 16 percent to 34 percent, according to various studies.

Resilience amid the crisis

Still, when the covid crisis hit in early 2020, Beacon faced most of the same challenges and obstacles to graduation that other colleges and universities did, school officials say.

Among other measures, they implemented and fine-tuned remote learning technology, developed a practice of social distancing and other health protocols for the campus, and expanded student success services to help students deal with the academic and mental health challenges.

As the pandemic threat ebbed, there was a great sense of relief, reliance, and accomplishment among the students, faculty, and staff at being able to get through the crisis, Provost Dr. Shelly Chandler said.

“We pulled it off, but it was certainly tense there for a while,” she said. “We just didn’t know what the ultimate impact was going to be. We wondered if the students were really learning effectively, especially in the early days of remote learning. But we were so happy to see those students persevere and go forward. It showed us that a lot of learning was indeed taking place after all.”

Learning beyond the classroom

For Beacon senior Helen Chinn, learning during covid went far beyond the classroom, to personal qualities of character and perseverance. Despite the disruption of the crisis, she resolved to face it with a positive attitude.

“I never thought negatively; I was determined not to give up,” said Chinn, a Beacon ambassador and captain of the cross-country team, who is set to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in business management. “I wanted to keep going and overcome all the challenging obstacles we were facing. I knew if I could persevere and finish strong, I would know I could handle it if covid ever happened again.”

Beacon graduate Emily Marra also took life lessons with her when she reached the finish line in 2022 with a bachelor’s in studio arts. That year’s valedictorian and an award-winning artist said she felt a mix of excitement, relief, and jitters.

“I was always excited for graduation, but it felt like my class was graduating into an uncertain future after covid,” she recalled. “Some of the doubts I faced were about whether I was really ready for what came next — something I think everybody questions to some extent. I know everyone wanted things to get back to ‘normal’ but normal would never be the same.”

In terms of college graduation rates, however, some experts expect them to resume their normal climb soon: “With the pandemic evening out the positive results from student success reforms, these recent numbers staying flat makes sense,” said Charles Ansell, research vice president for Complete College America, in Inside Higher Ed. “There’s an optimistic way to view this, I think, which is that once the pandemic’s effects fade, the numbers will likely start to go up again.”