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How COVID-19 Is Affecting Our Students

Students face increased levels of anxiety, depression, substance use, and financial stress, yet many remain resilient and hopeful about the future

February 1, 2021

It’s been nearly a year since COVID-19 first upended the lives of nearly twenty million US college students. While students face urgent challenges related to mental and physical health, learning in new environments, and lost wages and economic uncertainty, the full scale of the impacts on their lives may not become evident for years.

To get a clearer picture of students’ experiences during and after the pandemic, AAC&U has partnered with Columbia University’s Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group (GPEG) research team to support the federally funded, longitudinal National College Student COVID-19 Impact Study. Through online surveys, researchers are examining the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on student well-being, decision-making, and academic and life outcomes.

“Our research team is interested in identifying the ways in which students are resilient despite the uncertainty of the pandemic,” says Larkin McReynolds, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and one of the study’s principal investigators. “We view these students not as victims of COVID-19 but as proactive change agents of higher education and broader society who are playing a transformative role in the country’s reconfiguration following the pandemic.”

As the study continues now and over the next several years, participating campuses will receive data reports to facilitate ongoing campus action to engage and support students. Results will also be aggregated at a national level to inform higher education policy as campuses begin their recovery.

The preliminary results below—from data collected between September 2020 and January 2021 from more than nine hundred students at over seventy colleges and universities—show that students face increased levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, substance use, and financial stress. But while many students fear their college experience has been “ruined,” most remain resilient and hopeful about their future.

Students Still Experiencing High Levels of Emotional Stress

  • In the eleven months since the start of the pandemic, students have experienced large increases in anxiety and depression (see figure 1).
  • Male students are more than twice as likely to say they are experiencing anxiety now (36.2 percent) than before the pandemic (15.0 percent), and more than half of female students say they are experiencing anxiety now (53.8 percent) compared with 30.3 percent before the pandemic.
  • Students are also more likely to experience moderate or severe depression, an increase of 11.2 percentage points for women and 8.7 percentage points for men.
  • More students report an increase in their use of alcohol or marijuana during the pandemic (22.1 and 10.2 percent, respectively) than those who report a decrease in their use (13.8 percent and 7.6 percent, respectively).
  • Alarming numbers of students—especially men—are exhibiting suicidal behavior or thoughts.
  • Close to 14 percent of both women and men say that they wished they were dead at some point in the past few weeks, and nearly a quarter of men (23.5 percent) and 7.1 percent of women say they are currently thinking about killing themselves.
  • The study’s researchers are reaching out immediately with mental health resources for students and institutions if a student’s responses indicate imminent suicidal behavior.

Figure 1.


Fewer Students Are Using Campus Health Services than before the Pandemic

  • Overall, fewer students report using their college’s or university’s student health services (SHS) since the pandemic began.
  • While 28.7 percent of students reported using their institution’s SHS before March 2020, just 10.7 percent have done so since; 36.9 percent of these visited SHS for mental health reasons, 46.3 for general health reasons, and 12.7 for issues related to COVID-19.
  • Though usage of SHS is down, satisfaction levels are up, with more students saying they are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their institution’s SHS now (98.1 percent) than before the pandemic (85.6 percent).

Students Are Experiencing Higher Levels of Financial Stress and Food Insecurity

  • Students are experiencing higher levels of financial insecurity than before the pandemic.
  • At the end of December 2020, 14.4 percent of students said they did not have enough money to make ends meet, up from 6.0 percent in March 2020 (see figure 2).
  • A sizeable number of students (15.8 percent) have been somewhat or extremely worried about being evicted or losing their home to foreclosure.
  • A third of students also report experiencing either low (20.8 percent) or very low (13.4 percent) food security over the last year.

Figure 2.


Most Students Were Equipped to Learn Online but Some Were Confused during the Transition

  • When courses transitioned online, most students had access to a computer (94.8 percent) and a somewhat or very reliable internet connection (90.5 percent; see figure 3).
  • However, many students said they found their university’s transition to online learning “extremely confusing” (21.0 percent) or found their institution’s online learning platform moderately or extremely difficult to use (26.8 percent).

Figure 3.


Despite These Challenges, Students Remain Resilient and Hopeful

  • Many students don’t see a quick end to the pandemic’s impact on their lives, with 40.2 percent reporting that it is “unlikely/very unlikely” that their life will go back to normal after the pandemic.
  • Nearly as many (36.7 percent) report that they “very much” feel their college experience has been “ruined” because of the pandemic.
  • But despite all these challenges, many students remain optimistic, with nearly three-quarters (71.4 percent) agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement, “I am always hopeful about my future.”

Facts and figures have been included by permission of Columbia University’s Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group.