Critical Insights from Prospective Graduate Students Regarding the COVID-19 Outbreak and Its Impact on Grad School Selection and Attendance

Carnegie Higher Ed Apr 15, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Day-by-day, week-by-week, we’re in a completely unfamiliar world when it comes to understanding all of the impacts COVID-19 is having on prospective graduate students. We must consider the mindset of those looking to pursue a master’s or doctoral program and how coronavirus is impacting their research, consideration, and decision-making processes.

With that in mind, Carnegie Dartlet sought to provide critical information about prospective graduate students in order to glean insights into what they’re thinking so that higher education communications and marketing teams can better support them in these uncertain times. Through a survey of more than 1,000 prospective graduate students, we gathered information about levels of concern, likelihood to delay, format changes, core communication practices and preferences, and evolving selection criteria. We hope to create as much visibility on these and other topics as possible.

For a top-level summary, some of the key points uncovered from our survey include:

  1. Many students are concerned about COVID-19 and its impact on their education. And unlike what we found in our undergraduate survey, a significant portion of respondents (more than 60%) said there is at least some chance they would consider delaying their graduate education. Combine this with the low levels of confidence in being able to afford grad school right now, and there is a clear need to consider the overall mindset of these students in practically everything we’re doing.
  2. Prospective graduate students and applicants are asking for consistent and helpful communication and to have the opportunity to experience their potential grad school choices through whatever alternative possibilities they can right now. They selected email as their top choice for staying connected, followed by virtual tours. In lieu of being able to visit a campus or have any in-person interactions, finding reliable ways to experience the institution virtually as well as connect with admissions, administration, current students, and alumni rank high on their list of feedback and recommendations.
  3. Many students are holding steady with their previous plans—but with a watchful eye. When we asked if their plans were changing in terms of geographic factors or attending school on campus versus online, most respondents said their plans had not changed from what they had been before the COVID-19 outbreak. 

With this in mind, let’s dive into the details and specifics of the survey responses.


As we began our survey, it was important to get an understanding of students’ overall mindsets related to their concerns about COVID-19 and the potential impacts on their graduate education.

Prior to our survey, nearly a third of prospects were either not thinking about COVID-19 in relation to their graduate education or thinking about it very little. At the same time, over a third of respondents told us they were thinking about it a lot or it was at the top of their minds.

We then asked if there was concern about how COVID-19 will impact their graduate education. Not surprisingly, a majority of respondents described at least some level of concern, and 40% said their concern was either high or the top thing on their minds.

Will their concerns surrounding COVID-19 lead to changes in their plans?

A significant potential impact that many schools are concerned about, along with students themselves, is whether the current situation will lead to prospective students delaying their plans for their graduate education. While 20% of respondents said that it won’t, there were certainly varying levels of potential impact on plans that came through in response to this question. Over 50% described there was some to a high chance of delaying, and over 11% said they’ve already delayed their education plans.

What are prospects’ confidence levels in today’s climate for being able to afford their graduate education?

Reflecting on not only health concerns and the ways the world is responding, economic factors are front and center for prospective graduate students too. When asked about their confidence for being able to afford graduate education, it was clear that a large number of respondents are worried. More than two-thirds of them described being slightly to not at all confident in their ability to afford their graduate education at this point.


As part of our survey, we asked prospective graduate students and applicants about their preferences and feelings about the level and type of communication they’ve received or would like to receive from schools.

Institutions have been working overtime in an effort to communicate their response and support for prospective students during these uncertain times. When asked how they would rate their appreciation of the communications they’ve received from schools about COVID-19, well over half of survey respondents said they highly appreciate colleges and universities responding seriously.

Roughly 40% of respondents told us they have already applied to at least one college or university.

Of those students who said they’ve already applied to grad school, we asked how much they are feeling supported amid the outbreak by colleges and universities to which they’ve applied; 35.7% told us they felt only slightly supported or not supported at all, while 36% described themselves as feeling highly or completely supported by the institution(s) they’ve applied to.

When we asked how confident they are in knowing the next steps of action required to stay on track for their selected college or university amid the outbreak, an important theme emerged. Just over a quarter (26.38%) said they are extremely or totally confident in knowing what actions are needed to stay on track, whereas close to 74% said they were only slightly (28.47%) to somewhat (45.16%) confident.

What communication platforms do graduate prospects prefer?

With all of the different needs and preferences for communication, respondents were asked how they would like to connect and communicate with schools and were allowed to select all that apply.

Email was far and away the top choice, with 84.27% selecting that as their preferred option. This was followed by virtual tours at 60.37%, a certain reflection of the times. Closer to the bottom were social media messages and virtual chatbots.

How frequently do they want colleges and universities communicating with them?

Important to note is the frequency that respondents said they would like to be communicated with. Weekly communication leads the way by far, followed by biweekly communication. This represents a clear desire to feel both connected and informed through everything happening with the coronavirus pandemic so prospective students can be prepared for what they need to know and do. 

In Their Own Words: What messages or assistance do you need from colleges or universities regarding the outbreak?

“Alternative opportunities that may be available until the pandemic is under control.”

“An updated timeline for admissions/orientation in light of the outbreak.”

“Assurances that graduate coursework will continue online or in a classroom.”

“Clear information on how they are handling the outbreak. Especially the information on: what they already have done for their current students, and what they are planning to do for prospecting students.”

“Consistent and accurate information informing students of their resources and status amidst the outbreak.”

“Dates: orientations, start dates, any expected delays, etc.”

“Ensure that they just remind the applicants that the most important thing right now is to follow the guidance from their state governments and stay well.”

“Financial assistance. I’m out of a job now.”

“Honestly any information would be appreciated. I would love to know how it will affect the timeline of when I will hear back, as well as any changes with interviews. I would also appreciate any update of how this will impact classes if things are still not fully resolved by the start.”

“How can I tour or know a campus without going to see that campus? How do I know what the professors/staff is like if I can’t meet them?”

“How this will affect the start of the program if the outbreak continues for a longer period of time.”

“I would like colleges and universities to discuss their approach to the COVID-19 outbreak. Importantly, I wish they could bring me confidence by stating what measures they’ve adopted to provide students their education now at this difficult time and what is their response/plan for the future. It could be applying virtual communication (as in, online classes or speaking to professors on Zoom) or other means that apply current nationwide and statewide health guidelines. I’d like to know that these campuses have resources and personnel (i.e., financial aid, administration) readily available for current and future students.”

“It would be nice for them to reach out to potential students assuring them that they are still there to support them with their decisions.”

“Outlined plan and updated application dates.”

“Responses on financial assistance. The pandemic is affecting jobs and income. How are we expected to continue our education and pay for school?”

“Tuition assistance during this time in which many people are unable to find work/aptly move forward in preparations for the financial responsibility of attending our respective graduate programs.”


It’s no surprise that circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are impacting the decisions prospective graduate students are making and shifting how they may have considered certain options over others.

We asked prospective graduate students if they have already visited at least one campus to help make their graduate college or university decision: 39.14% said they had, and 60.86% said they had not.

So we wanted to know, in this current climate, how likely are they to commit to a school that they haven’t had the opportunity to visit? Over 46% said they are only slightly likely or not at all likely to commit without having visited the school, and just 6.18% said they absolutely will.

In Their Own Words: What can colleges and universities do to make you comfortable with selecting a school without being able to visit?

“A virtual tour, including lecture example from each professor, and a live Skype or zoom group with recent students who can answer questions and describe experiences.”

“Be available for calls and emails; if all offices are not available via digital means, it goes a long way to show the kind of commitment they have for the students.”

“Be transparent regarding what sets their school apart from others. Create a thorough virtual tour.”

“Create virtual campus tours, open video chats for Q&A sessions for potential students, and make administration available to potential students during this time.”

“Detail what life is like in the area/city. Show diversity and a wide range of activities to do outside of school. Give potential students access to have conversations with alumni and other students so they can share ideas and thoughts.”

“Have a great online presence and website.”

“Have current students personally reach out to potential students offering to answer any questions and provide guidance.”

“Nothing. I need to visit.”

“Provide adequate information regarding their preparedness to work around the various challenges and uncertainties that students face due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Virtual meet-ups with admissions, current students, professors ‘virtual tour’ of campus facilities and opportunities”

What about geographic factors?

Front and center at many students’ minds are what both today and tomorrow will look like in terms of openness to travel far from home for their graduate education. We asked survey respondents if their education plans may change in terms of location because of the current situation. The majority said there is no change in their plans from a geographic standpoint, and roughly one-third said there is now some chance they will reconsider geographic factors due to COVID-19.

On campus versus online

Similarly, we wanted to get a sense of the impact COVID-19 is having on students reassessing their plans to attend graduate school on campus versus online. Close to 60% said their plans have not changed based either on the fact that they still plan to attend grad school on campus (38.79%) or had always been planning on attending school online (19.98%). Looking at the rest of the responses, roughly 10% said their plans had changed significantly or completely.


We asked students, overall, what would you say is the most significant impact COVID-19 has had on your graduate school research and selection process?

We received over 700 free-form and unfiltered responses to this question alone. We’ll be compiling and categorizing the answers to this question in a separate blog post as a follow-up to this one, so please stay tuned for that to be published soon. 


Day-to-day and week-to-week: this remains the mantra for how college and universities need to approach their communication with and support of prospective graduate students during this unprecedented time. It’s clear—and also no surprise—that students are struggling to navigate their paths in the midst of all of this and that they are desperate for consistent and helpful answers. Communicating with them with the right tone and sensitivity—as well as providing them with guidance around what has changed for your school and what that means for them and their needs in the future—is critical. 

For graduate institutions, understanding that current circumstances are leading to changes in decision-making factors on the student side cannot be understated. Geographic preferences, inability to visit a campus, online versus on-campus considerations, financial uncertainty: these are all significant elements that are having significant impacts. Understanding the mindsets of your prospective graduate students, their preferences for staying connected and informed, and the changes that are occurring in their plans as a result are what we hope this survey and report have helped shed some light on. 

Things will keep changing. We will do what we can to stay as connected as possible and keep you tuned in to all that we’re seeing and hearing. 


Using our CollegeXpress platform, Carnegie Dartlet sent an invitation to those with a high school graduation year of 2017 or earlier asking for their help. In just a few days, more than 1,000 students responded. There was an incredibly strong response both through the quantitative questions asked and also in the qualitative sections, providing hundreds of thoughtful and unfiltered answers that really help shape and tell the full story. This report is the result of a prospective student audience that wanted its voice to be heard.

About the sample:

We started off the survey asking respondents if they are currently considering attending or in the process of researching or applying to graduate school. Those who answered “yes” continued on with the survey, whereas those who answered “no” or those who were currently attending graduate school were removed from the results.


Average age of respondents: 28

With which gender do you identify?

What is your race? Please select all that apply.

Direct queries about this report can be sent to our Executive Vice President of Business Development, Mark Cunningham. For rapidly updating information about COVID-19 and its impact on higher education, please visit our blog.



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