College campuses are the center of life for many students, not only for learning and socializing, but for meeting basic needs such as food, housing and medical care. Campus closures due to COVID-19 have far reaching impacts on student learning and well-being, particularly for first-generation or low-income (FGLI) students who may have less flexibility for navigating the obstacles that these closures create.

We surveyed 185 current and prospective college students in our network to understand their top challenges and what they have found most useful so far. We are still soliciting responses and would love to hear from your students — please reach out to Sophie at smcguinness@entangled.group to get their voices involved.

Students are missing community above all else, making it a priority feature for successful future iterations of distance and online learning.

Students rated each potential challenge on a 4-point Likert scale from “not urgent/not applicable” to “very urgent”.

The survey data show that students are mourning the loss of their in-person college experience, ranking “missing campus community” as their top challenge during campus closures even above cost of living and learning online. This is likely a big driver of whether or not students will find their distance experience worth the tuition dollars.

Campus-based students place (and often pay) a premium on networking and community, and institutions are already seeing students take action to prove that point. Considering how much the on-campus experience is defined by interconnectedness, this is no surprise. Providing a sense of connection and community not only pays off in student satisfaction, research shows it encourages persistence and retention. As students face an uncertain future where learning must take place online, emergency remote measures will need to evolve into more high-quality, interconnected and supported online learning experiences.

“I’m glad that my university is giving students refunds for school housing but we’re still being deprived of campus resources that we can only get on campus (e.g. physical books at the library, the gym etc.) and I miss the social aspect of incidentally meeting friends in person on campus.

- First-generation & low-income student from Pennsylvania

Current students are concerned about the impact COVID-19 has on their outcomes, reinforcing a need for additional clarity and flexibility from schools.

Students rated each type of support on a 4-point Likert scale from “not useful/not applicable” to “very useful”.

The second largest concern for the students in our sample was receiving fair grades, and the top action students wanted to see from colleges and universities in response was providing extra time or flexibility on assignments. This shows that setting clear rules and expectations around assignments and grades, as well as providing extra flexibility, could reduce student anxiety, uncertainty and frustration with colleges. Additionally, student concern for grades and outcomes seems to be connected to preserving their academic progress — our survey found that 33% of students are worried that coronavirus closures will impact their ability to finish on time.

To help ease student concerns around time and flexibility, institutions launching online programs could consider using innovative models to measure learning by competency rather than the traditional credit hour. In a recent Entangled Solutions Higher Education Town Hall, SNHU President Paul LeBlanc shared the benefits of online learning models that no longer use time as a proxy for measuring student learning, and which may be better suited to times of crisis as many students have to renegotiate deadlines and responsibilities. Promising practices are gaining traction in learning models like competency-based education where pacing is flexible, and learners have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning, models that are especially effective in online or distance settings.

“My primary worry was that the university’s decisions would disrupt my future employment (commissioning as an officer in the Marine Corps). A degree is a prerequisite to commissioning, and if the university extended their classes, or if I did poorly in online learning, this could impact my career. The decision to move to pass/fail alleviated this worry and maintained the timeline.”

— Current student from North Carolina

Additionally, in the open-response section of the survey, students expressed concern around finding jobs and meeting prerequisites for graduate programs or jobs. Colleges should consider making concerted efforts to invest in their career services to help students locate post-graduation opportunities, a topic we discussed in another recent Entangled Solutions Higher Education Town Hall panel discussion on Career Services and College Recruiting in COVID-19.

Current and prospective students are considering delaying returning or enrolling in school this fall, likely due to financial hurdles and reservations about learning online.

Nearly 30% of prospective students surveyed are considering delaying enrollment due to coronavirus interruptions, and 18% of current low income students are considering delaying their return to college in the fall; 4% are considering dropping out altogether.

Students are likely inhibited by extra emergency costs and concerns about moving their college experience online. Programs with a high emphasis on networking, such as MBAs, may be at a particular risk of having students defer enrollment until an in-person experience is possible.

The question above was asked of respondents who were prospective college students.

As the crisis unfolds, it is likely that an economic recession will drive an increase in enrollment of post-traditional students as unemployment increases and workers return to school to improve their skills. In this moment, a third of Americans anticipate that, should they lose their jobs, they will need to pursue additional education. This has potential to accelerate the shift in demographics of student populations, particularly toward millennial and Generation X learners returning to school from the workforce to expand their employment opportunities. Schools should take this crisis as an opportunity to advance efforts that ensure programs and services are inclusive of the learners of the future. This may require investing in flexible scheduling, shorter-term degrees and certificates that are both aligned to the workforce and stackable toward further education, and more comprehensive wrap-around student support.

“I was intending to apply this summer and early fall to various grad programs, but am concerned about how the prerequisites will be handled because my shadowing opportunities are not possible as well as preparing to take the GRE is going to be different, so I am worried about how this will affect my applications.”

- First-generation student from Nebraska

Targeted aid and emergency grants could ease transitions for FGLI learners, and may help students stay on track to return in the fall.

Students spent an average of $500 extra to make arrangements due to campus closures. Surprise expenses of this size can be destabilizing to students and families. Research from the Federal Reserve shows 40% Americans lack the cash or savings to cover a $400 expense, and for low-income students in particular, a setback of this size could be enough to risk derailing their academic standing. Since 50% of students surveyed are employed on campus, it’s also likely that these students have recently lost at least one source of funding for their education.

“I really respect my school’s response to COVID-19. They have been very clear, have provided assistance and communication for every problem or question a student could have at least from my experience. They also communicated the need to refrain from bias or anger towards certain communities and instead provided facts for the spread of COVID-19. I pay college entirely by myself and they gave us the option to receive a full refund on our housing if we decided to terminate our contract, and even if we decided to stay and leave halfway through the term we would only be charged for the days we stayed.”

— Current student from Oregon

Colleges should make use of upcoming federal relief funds to disburse cash for transitions, food assistance, and housing, and should waive fees wherever possible to help students maintain stability in these times and remain on-track to return in the fall. Additionally, centralizing social services resources to help students access other aid options like SNAP food benefits and medicaid through a toolkit like this one from the Hope Center is a low cost way to ensure students can find ways to meet their basic needs. Schools can also explore ways to connect students with work-based learning alternatives that can open up the door for accruing professional experience and (in some cases) income despite cancelled internships and summer jobs.

In summary, institutions can take the following actions to meet the needs articulated by current and prospective students:

  1. Evolve from emergency remote measures for delivering distance education to more high-quality, interconnected and supported online learning experiences
  2. Reduce student anxiety, uncertainty and frustration by setting clear rules and expectations around assignments and grades, as well as providing extra flexibility through the rest of the term.
  3. Invest in career services to help students navigate a challenging post-graduation job landscape.
  4. Advance efforts that ensure programs and services are inclusive of post-traditional students, such as offering flexible scheduling, shorter-term degrees and certificates that are both aligned to the workforce and stackable toward further education, and more comprehensive wrap-around student support.
  5. Centralize social services resources to make it easy for students to access support, in addition to disbursing federal relief funds, waiving fees where possible, and connecting students with work-based learning alternatives for the summer.

Our survey is still open! If you are a current or prospective college student interested in adding your voice, please reach out to Sophie at smcguinness@entangled.group!

Special thanks to Terah Crews, Alex Cannon, Mike Berlin, Anna Jiang, Martin Wernick, and College Possible: Minnesota for their support.

Notes on our sample:

185 current and prospective students were surveyed across 25 states and Canada, evenly distributed across grade levels. 19% of the sample identified as low-income, and 21% as first-generation. 20% of the sample were prospective students, and 80% were current.

The survey was distributed through Entangled’s professional network, as well as through student listservs at universities in California and North Carolina.

We work across boundaries to harvest insights and unlock the potential of the people and organizations poised to accelerate innovation and foster equity in edu.

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