The Effects of COVID-19 on Current Students

Carnegie Higher Ed Apr 03, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

A preamble: Why are we doing these studies?

Several weeks ago, as the reality of the pandemic effect on campuses began to take hold, we started to receive calls from some of our more than 600 college and university clients. The drumbeat of change rippled across higher education, and many people began with a fundamental question: “What do I do now?”

In that time, Carnegie Dartlet has gathered client input and put our best strategists and researchers to work to get answers. We recognized early on that we needed to utilize our research and strategy capabilities and step in to gauge how students, both prospective and current, were reacting to these unprecedented changes.

While a typical custom research study takes around five to seven weeks to complete, we rallied our team to complete each wave in five to seven days, with the hope that doing this would deliver the critical insights required for our clients within a timeframe that would enable innovation, unleash action and strategic adaptation, and maximize the efficient utilization of scarce resources at a time when there is no clear direction. We are providing this comprehensive data as open source to everyone in the industry with this in mind. Simply put, this is a way in which Carnegie Dartlet can use its capabilities to answer the call during these difficult times. We hope it does.

Now, on to the topic at hand. The following is a short summary of key findings from a quantitative study of over 5,200 current college students conducted by Carnegie Dartlet from March 27–29, 2020. 

Current students and COVID-19

As mentioned above, we’ve received many requests for counsel and questions from our colleagues throughout higher education on the topic of how to deal with current students amid the COVID-19 crisis. This is a great and unprecedented challenge for campuses across the nation, and over the past 10 days, we have set out to design and conduct a study of current college students from our CollegeXpress database to garner critical sentimentality and concerns of the effects of campus closures, financial stress, and future leanings of these students given all that has happened in the past few weeks. 

This summary covers four critical data points from the study but is only a highlight. Our full survey report is meant to be a resource to our campus partners and colleagues throughout the entire higher education community. We welcome you to download the complete, 37-page comprehensive study for free.

Survey highlight #1: 4 in 5 students see their schools as trustworthy sources of COVID-19 information

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, current college students are paying attention to school communications and are expressing a greater interest in communication efforts. If there is any silver lining to a global pandemic, this may be one of the few bright notes. While campus communications are in focus by current students, many institutions should consider using this opportunity to build an intelligent communications strategy geared toward next fall on campus. Colleges should consider building a strategy around “summer melt” for current students, an activity that was once considered for prospective students only. Given all the challenges we’re facing, this is a critical time to focus part of your efforts on retaining current students this fall.

“Giving consistent updates to students. Right now, we randomly get emails from the Chancellor about it but I’d
rather have a determined day we get emails every week so we can expect it.” ~ female respondent, South

Survey highlight #2: 4 in 5 students report having to make large or drastic life changes to accommodate the current COVID-19 situation 

This data point does not comprise a single factor; instead, it highlights compounding concerns that have contributed to eroding student confidence in a known path to degree completion. Campuses will likely need to consider a holistic and wide-ranging level of support for students, including more attention to student academic support for online education, addressing new and significant financial hardships (more on this in the full survey results), and building or expanding capabilities for academic advising and assistance. 

“Considering I need to take a lab in the summer, I am concerned that it may push my schooling back further, if I am not able to attend these labs. Plus I learn better in class, so I am hoping my grades aren’t affected due to the online schooling environment.” ~ female respondent, Midwest

Survey highlight #3: 50% of students say COVID-19 won’t stop them from attending college under any circumstances

Many college students are resilient and taking this unprecedented closure or classroom format change in stride. With that said, around a quarter of students say there is at least a slight chance they would delay their education if the pandemic isn’t resolved by the fall. The main requirement for the campus effort here is to take steps to reduce student concerns about scheduled start and return dates, as the research shows that reduced concerns have a positive correlation on reducing the likelihood to delay. As a result, campuses should further expand outreach to current students throughout the crisis and summer months and begin to schedule fall startup events as soon as the main shock of the pandemic has become somewhat normalized. 

“I attend college about 500 miles from home. It’s not easy to make unplanned changes, like moving home at Spring
break. I’m concerned that the fall semester will begin, and I’ll suddenly have to leave again. I’m also concerned
that the fall semester will begin VIRTUALLY, as opposed to in person, and I really want to go back to school.”
~ male respondent, Northeast

Survey highlight #4: A plurality of students do not feel comfortable taking classes online

Despite being digital natives, most students are not fully comfortable with an exclusive online learning medium. This may be just as true for many college professors! As we all adjust to the temporary “new normal” of social isolation, it’s important to note that many students miss their connections on campus as well as the events and experiences cut short as a result of COVID-19. Campuses should consider experimenting with communications channels and strategies to re-engage students beyond the classroom, even while the academic experience has moved online. 

“All classes have moved online. I am worried because in the past, I have not done well with online classes. We
were also given notice on a Monday afternoon to be moved out of our dorms by 9am on the Friday of the same
week, unless there were extenuating circumstances that had to be approved. Both my jobs are still open so I was
worried about my living situation. I have figured it out, but it is not ideal. I am also an out of state student.”
~ female respondent, Heartland

Keeping hope alive

It’s important to note how much students are remaining hopeful. Despite all that has occurred in such a short time, current college students are still optimistic about the future. 

Ready to learn more? Download the complete comprehensive study for an in-depth data analysis of our current college students survey—it’s completely free. Additionally, a 90-minute webinar with a major focus on this study and current student engagement was conducted on April 2. A recording of the session is available here.


For continued content on impacts, strategies, and perspectives surrounding higher ed and COVID-19, continue to check our resources page.

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