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Students’ Educational Experience, Well-Being, and Safety during the Fall Semester

Recent surveys shed light on the campus experience amid the pandemic

December 1, 2020

When college and university campuses reopened in the fall, they did so amid a pandemic that had already killed more than 180,000 and infected more than six million people in the United States by the beginning of September. By the end of the fall semester, more than 90 people had died at colleges and universities amid nearly 400,000 cases.

As campuses reopened, their campuses and curricula were transformed. How do students—many of them isolated and learning online for the first time—feel about their learning experiences in the fall? And how did campuses keep their students and faculty safe? A survey from Gallup and Lumina Foundation, and another survey from the American College Health Association, shed light on the campus experience amid the pandemic.

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As Students Transitioned to Online Learning, Most Still Thought Highly of Their Education

  • According to a Gallup/Lumina survey of six thousand students conducted in September and October, the number of undergraduate students studying online skyrocketed as the pandemic continued. While more than three-quarters of students (76 percent) were studying mostly on campus before the pandemic, just 22 percent did so this fall.
  • However, most students felt good about the education they received this fall. About three-quarters of respondents (including 72 percent of students in associate’s programs and 76 percent in bachelor’s programs) said that the quality of their education in the fall was “excellent” or “very good.”
  • But online learning did seem to lessen students’ enthusiasm. Students who studied fully in person in the fall were more likely to say their education was excellent or very good than those studying completely online (85 percent and 73 percent, respectively).
  • Students who transitioned from mostly on-campus classes to mostly online learning were slightly less likely to say their education was very good or excellent (71 percent).

The Switch Online May Have Lessened Students’ Well-Being and Connections to Their Institution

  • Just 27 percent of students who went from learning completely in-person to completely online felt they were “thriving in their well-being”—a 17-percentage-point drop compared with students who didn’t change their learning method, according to Lumina/Gallup.
  • Similar drop-offs occurred for students strongly agreeing that they had a professor who cared for them (a 40-percentage-point drop), that they had a mentor (24 percentage points), or that they belonged at their institution (23 percentage points).
  • Colleges seem to be responding to the effects of COVID-19 and its isolating effects on students. In a survey of members at 289 institutions, the American College Health Association (ACHA) found that most campuses (85 percent) are conducting mental health checks on isolated or quarantining students.
  • Most often, these checks were conducted by counseling center, residence life, or health services staff. Nearly half of campuses (48 percent) reached out to isolated students daily.
  • However, Gallup/Lumina found that many students—especially at community colleges—didn’t know about the services their institution offers to keep them healthy and safe. While half of community college students knew their institution offers emergency financial help (51 percent) or academic tutoring (52 percent), far fewer knew whether their college provides services for mental health (31 percent), food assistance (32 percent), career counseling (33 percent), or childcare (19 percent).

For Many Students—Especially Black and Hispanic Students—COVID May Be a Barrier to Finishing Their Degrees

  • Gallup/Lumina found that a third of bachelor’s degree students (33 percent) and 38 percent of associate’s degree students thought about stopping their education over the past six months. The most common reasons for these thoughts were COVID-19, emotional stress, the cost of attendance, and responsibilities for taking care of children or family members.
  • More than half of associate’s degree students (56 percent) and almost half of bachelor’s degree students (49 percent) said that COVID-19 is likely or very likely to “negatively impact their ability to complete their degree,” the Gallup/Lumina report said.
  • These numbers were highest for Black and Hispanic students at four-year institutions (56 percent for each group) and two-year institutions (60 percent for each group).

How Campuses Have Been Testing Their Students for COVID

  • In an effort to prevent students from bringing COVID-19 to campus as the fall semester began, almost a quarter (23 percent) of institutions required students to show documentation of a negative COVID-19 test before arriving, the ACHA found. More institutions (37 percent) tested students when they arrived.
  • The vast majority of institutions (84 percent) tested individual students as needed, and 60 percent have been testing faculty or staff.
  • Nearly all of these campuses tested symptomatic students (93 percent) or students who were exposed (84 percent). More than two-thirds tested asymptomatic students living in residence halls, participating in fraternities/sororities, playing on athletic teams, or living in residence halls.
  • Of institutions testing asymptomatic students living in residence halls, more than a fifth (22 percent) tested students more than once a week and more than a third (37 percent) tested students weekly.