How COVID-19 Is Affecting Colleges And Students


Most of us, especially parents of college students, have seen the effects of COVID-19 on higher education. For eight months now, classes, dorm residency, student health and perhaps most importantly (at least from a student perspective), campus life have been turned upside down due to the pandemic.

Study Reviews Impact of COVID on Student Mental Health

One important consequence that lurks in the background and is now emerging as a major concern is the effect of the coronavirus on student mental health. In a recent study by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, published in September, outcomes of interviews conducted with 195 students at a large public university in the United States revealed the effects of the pandemic on their mental health and well-being. Results were dramatic:

Of the 195 students, 138 (71 percent) indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included:

  • Fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (177/195, 91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic),
  • Difficulty in concentrating (173/195, 89%), disruptions to sleeping patterns (168/195, 86%),
  • Decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (167/195, 86%), and
  • Increased concerns on academic performance (159/195, 82%).

To cope with stress and anxiety, participants have sought support from others and helped themselves by adopting either negative or positive coping mechanisms

Some Students Rethink College Plans

Speaking of coping mechanisms, apparently a certain population of students who, pre-pandemic, were considering college and other forms of higher or vocational education have developed their own methods of dealing with the realities of our COVID-19 world: reconsidering their educational plans.

Last week, in his Inside Higher Ed article, Scott Jaschik detailed the concerns and doubts of students with this headline:

More than a third of prospective college students are reconsidering higher education. And 43 percent of prospective students for one- and two-year programs are looking to delay enrollment

That's significant bad news for those colleges looking to stay alive during this challenging time. As I've noted before, enrollment nationally is in decline due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. A November white paper, the results of which Jaschik writes about, looks into the attitudes of potential higher education students. Their thinking should strike deep concern in the hearts and budgets of all but the most competitive schools' administrators.

Jaschick notes that the two findings cited in his headline come from a survey by LaneTerralever, "... a national marketing and advertising agency for higher education. LaneTerralever surveyed 528 students across the U.S. in September." LaneTerralever states that, "In addition to the quantitative findings from our survey, we also spoke to a number of prospective students to uncover additional details about each student's unique journey …" Thus, these revelations may speak for a much wider audience of students than those surveyed.

The survey took into consideration age, gender and economic factors:

The study participants, split evenly along gender lines, were 56 percent white, 20 percent Black, 9 percent Latinx and 10 percent Asian. Nontraditional prospective students said they had considered enrolling in college in the last 18 months.

For all students, finances and being able to afford college are a key issue. Forty percent of students indicated they are being forced to explore other financial support options as a result of the pandemic. Of those who are likely to pursue higher education, 37 percent said they are most likely to self-fund their education

College Cost Plays Major Role in Decision-Making

Once again, the cost of delivering higher education, now being exacerbated by COVID-19, is weighing heavily upon prospective students' plans. Value is also a critical factor as virtual learning appears to be moving forward into the spring semester. Dislocations continue to change the college environment, particularly in the area of the "traditional college experience."

High schoolers and their parents, as well as older, nontraditional prospects, are increasingly scrutinizing the relationship between sky-high college expenses and the current campus learning and living realities. They're not liking what they're seeing. Jaschick notes:

For many, the question is whether remote learning provides enough value. Only 35 percent of traditional students find remote learning extremely valuable, while 43 percent of nontraditional students say it is. Older students are more likely to welcome the autonomy of online learning and availability of virtual support

Other results of the survey include those from traditional-aged students:

  • 36 percent said they are less likely than they were pre-pandemic to pursue a higher education
  • But 54 percent said that having a degree or certificate is extremely valuable
  • Only 20 percent said they were confident about finding a job

From nontraditional-aged students:

  • 28 percent said they are less likely to pursue higher education
  • But 65 percent said that as a result of the pandemic, a degree or certificate is extremely valuable
  • 41 percent said they were confident about finding a job

Another significant factor that is affecting the college population, as a result of the move to virtual learning, is dropouts by low-income students. This issue was addressed in a mid-September article in The Washington Post: The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers by Heather Long and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, who report, in part:

Enrollment trends so far show especially steep drops among Black students and rural White students. These students are facing multiple setbacks: difficulty paying for college, job losses and the public health crisis, as coronavirus cases have hit African American and Hispanic communities the hardest. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse found summer enrollment fell the most at community colleges and among Black students. Experts say summer trends are often a good indicator of what's to come

Among the reasons students are citing for not returning to school this fall: frustration or uncertainty about online classes or changing class formats and content; fear of contracting the coronavirus; and inability to pay for classes after the student or parent lost a job or took a financial hit. This is according to the Census Bureau survey taken Aug. 19 to Aug. 31 of households with at least one adult who originally planned to go to college this fall and then decided not to attend ...

An extensively detailed survey of pandemic-related student perspectives by reveals that the difficulties for Hispanic students are especially acute:

Hispanic students reported a greater number of challenges to their continued course participation after instruction went online. Fitting the course in with home/ family responsibilities, for example, was a major problem for 27 percent of Hispanic students, compared to just 12 percent of non-Hispanic White students. Similarly, 27 percent of Hispanic students said finding a quiet place to work on the course was a major problem for them, compared to 16 percent of non-Hispanic Whites. Feeling too unwell, physically or emotionally, to participate in the course was another challenge more prevalent among Hispanic students: 21 percent reported this as a major problem, compared to 12 percent of non-Hispanic Whites. More Hispanic students (24 percent) than non-Hispanic White students (14 percent) also reported having a major problem knowing where to get help with the course after it went online. The pervasiveness of challenges for Black students was generally in between that for Hispanic students and that for non-Hispanic White students

Overall, then, multiple sources point to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic is changing the higher education landscape. It's affecting students of all demographics, some much more than others, both current and prospective. The suppression of enrollments and the dropout factor are warning signs for those colleges that, even before COVID-19, were struggling to fill their incoming classes.

Will circumstances improve with the arrival of the vaccine(s)? Will new viral threats emerge? Are some colleges currently preparing to close their doors? Will colleges lower their costs in response to the evolving student "market"? These are just a handful of pertinent questions inspired by our Brave New World. Stay tuned for answers, some of which we may not like.