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New Study Reveals 1,000 Students’ Opinions on Returning to College

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The decisions that college students and university administrators have to make about returning to campus this fall are rooted in complicated feelings about online education, COVID-19 and cost, among other issues. But many students aren't confident that their classmates will follow the appropriate social distancing and mask-wearing protocols required to keep everyone safe, a new report reveals.


The study from Real Estate Witch (REW) includes "new research … on how 1,000 students feel about going back to school and how 100 US universities are handling the COVID-19 pandemic," REW says. When I initially saw the study, I was intrigued by the combined keywords "students," "universities" and "COVID-19," all of which occupy a place of honor in my column's wheelhouse these days, so I dug deeper.

What I found was, essentially, a comprehensive snapshot of student attitudes about what's happening right now, on the cusp of the 2020-2021 academic year. The study found that 72 percent of college students want to return to campus this fall, but 86 percent are concerned about their health as a result of going back to school.

This has led many students to consider online classes, but 81 percent believe in-person classes provide a better education than online courses. As a result, 90 percent think online courses should cost less than in-person classes. Just three percent of the college administrators surveyed, however, say their colleges plan to reduce tuition this fall. No wonder students are distressed.

Students Worry About Quality of Online Classes

One of the first things I do when scanning a study is to check the methodology to get some perspective on how the numbers were generated and where they came from. This is how REW did it:

We surveyed 1,000 undergraduate students in the U.S. who were enrolled in college courses during the spring/summer 2020 semesters and have enrolled for the fall 2020 semester using an online survey platform between July 23 and 26, 2020.

University data were collected by searching 100 randomly selected university sites. The colleges were all four-year establishments, split evenly between public and private and split evenly among the four major Census regions in the United States (West, Midwest, Northeast and South). These data were collected between July 23 and 28, 2020.

You can view the numerical study results here and the university data here.

Here are the main areas covered:

  • Students Are Stuck in Rental Agreements
  • Students Are Missing Out on Resume-Building Opportunities
  • Students Struggle to Keep or Find Jobs to Pay for School
  • Parents Are Losing Their Jobs, Impacting Students' Finances
  • Job Losses Lead to Steep Increase in Debt
  • Students Are Worried About Online Education Quality
  • Students Are Unsure Colleges Can Ensure Student Health
  • Students Trust Themselves, Not Peers, to Socially Distance

I'll highlight portions of only the last three areas, so if you're interested in finding out what a thousand students think about all of this, please read the entire report.

As more and more colleges — that as recently as June touted their in-person teaching plans for Fall semester — shift to online classes (Goucher College is a good example), students and their families are becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of their education, and those attitudes are reflected in the REW study:

In order to afford continued education, colleges are making significant changes to their campuses, classrooms and course formats come fall. Although nearly 30 percent of college students enrolled in at least one online course each semester before COVID-19, students are wary of shifting to all or mostly online courses …

… Only 34 percent of students said they're moderately or extremely confident that their college can provide the same quality of education as they had in previous years. Part of that lack of confidence stems from their beliefs about online courses: 74 percent think online courses are more difficult and provide a subpar education (81 percent) compared to in-person courses.

Nearly 90 percent of students agreed that online courses should cost less than traditional, in-person classes. But our investigation into 100 colleges across the US indicated very few (about three percent) plan to reduce tuition in the fall despite the fact that most are introducing more online and hybrid courses to their catalogs.

Contrary to students' desires, more colleges (four percent) are planning to increase tuition this year as a result of COVID-19 than are planning to decrease

That last sentence will cause some severe heartburn for those affected. Speaking of health issues, student concerns are critical:

31 percent of students said they're extremely concerned about their health as a result of going back to school, while only about 14 percent said they weren't concerned at all.

Health concerns have students questioning whether they should return to school: 39 percent said they only want to return if their college plans to take precautionary measures, while 28 percent said they want to only take online courses in lieu of returning to campus ...

Beyond limiting time in the classroom, colleges are also taking additional measures to ensure students aren't inadvertently spreading the virus:

  • 78 percent of colleges mentioned required mask-wearing on campus
  • 33 percent said students will be required to be tested before entering campus and/or regularly throughout the year
  • 29 percent have required symptom checks/monitoring to enter campus
  • 19 percent are participating in contact tracing
  • 9 percent are requiring students to quarantine before returning to campus or if they test positive.
  • Other common measures include additional cleaning, social distancing throughout campus and in classrooms, and take-out food only (i.e., closed cafeterias for in-person dining)

Despite these precautionary plans, 17 percent of students aren't confident at all in their colleges' ability to enforce the measures, and 12 percent said they're not at all confident that their university will take responsibility for ensuring student safety

Students are just about as confident in their peers' willingness to participate in social distancing measures as they are in their college's ability to enforce them.

About 18 percent said they're not confident at all in other students' participation in social distancing and mask-wearing measures on campus — only 17 percent were extremely confident.

In contrast, the students we surveyed are confident in their own compliance: 44 percent reported they're extremely likely to avoid social gatherings if campus resumes in-person classes

These are important insights, in my view. The big-picture takeaway, at least from this study's sampling, should be that students are seriously concerned about the quality and cost of online classes, although their specific resentment of hiked tuition was left unqueried. Most importantly, they're quite anxious about their health in on-campus situations. Their lack of confidence about classmates' safety practices is not reassuring.

Obviously, colleges have been thrown a huge curveball for 2020, but students and their families have been thrown a bigger one because of the financial (value) implications of all this. My past higher education "sea change" prediction is now in full bloom, and all it took to start the devolution was a 125-nanometer-sized particle called COVID-19.

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