What Students and Colleges Faced During the Pandemic

Blog Post
Jan. 27, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis has brought unprecedented challenges to higher education. Since summer, New America has partnered with the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) to understand the impacts of the pandemic on institutional policies, consumer protection, and finance through interviews with representatives from institutions and systems of higher education, professional associations, and students. This blog is part of a series in which we sum up findings from these interviews. You can explore findings regarding the pandemic's impacts on institutional finance here, and consumer protection here.

The COVID-19 pandemic left students and colleges struggling. Students faced financial challenges that put their education in jeopardy, had new living arrangements that made learning difficult, and often lacked the resources necessary to even log onto class online. Colleges invested time and money to pivot classes, activities and services online in a matter of days and simultaneously suffered the loss of essential tuition and auxiliary revenue.

College students and the institutions where they enroll have struggled during the pandemic. To better understand what happened, New America and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) held focus groups, fielded public opinion surveys, and engaged in interviews with students, college leadership, and researchers to learn more about what students and colleges faced during the pandemic and how to move forward. Our team, focused on institutional policy changes, uncovered three themes that will have lasting impact beyond the pandemic: 1) the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated equity gaps among students 2) students and college administrators viewed the shift to online differently, highlighting the disconnect between administrators and the student and faculty experience, and 3) insufficient and untimely federal relief funds put colleges in a tough financial situation, leading to botched reopenings.

Inequities Worsen

The abrupt shift to online in the Spring 2020 semester made it clear that existing inequities in higher education had only gotten worse and that it would affect student groups differently. Students at residential colleges were abruptly told to to pack up their belongings and leave the campus they called home, sometimes without even a proper goodbye to their friends and instructors who played a pivotal role in their development and sense of community. But for many housing insecure students, there either was no safe home to return to, or no home at all. Even if students did have somewhere else to go when residence halls closed, many did not have the resources necessary to leave on a moment's notice or have a quiet, private space to study once they got home. The abrupt exodus from residence halls in March also brought up issues of refunds for students who left early and concerns for how to house vulnerable students.

Similarly, the shift to online left students already experiencing food insecurity without resources to have a meal. Physical spaces like food pantries and the possibility of attending events to get a meal were no longer an option. Campus closures, combined with the serious financial consequences of the pandemic, left many of the country's most vulnerable students without one or more of their most basic needs, making it nearly impossible to continue their education and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity for low-income students.

The pandemic also exposed how many students lacked another basic necessity for their education: access to affordable and reliable broadband. Prior to the pandemic, low-income students and students of color often relied on campus resources to complete their education, like libraries, computer labs, and campus wi-fi, but lost these essential tools when campuses shuttered. Too many students of color and low-income, rural, and Native students struggled to even log into class because of inequitable access to the internet. Similarly, many of these same students lacked computers and cameras to support their education and resorted to using their phones instead. Institutions engaged in heroic efforts to get laptops and hotspots to these students, and several policy solutions were floated around, but even so, staying in school remotely proved difficult for many.

Students with disabilities also struggled to get their needs met during the pandemic. In the struggle to transition to online, many faculty members did not take federally mandated actions that ensured accessibility for students with disabilities, like including closed captioning, alternative text for images, or transcribing lectures. While some faculty members went above and beyond to ensure accessibility for students with disabilities, for too many it was an afterthought that could put a college at risk for a lawsuit.

The pandemic shone a bright light on how basic necessities--internet, food, housing, and access--are essential for students across the country to be able to access higher education. And for students of color and low-income students, this lack has only exacerbated their challenges in higher education. These unmet basic needs will have real consequences on students' educational trajectory, and ultimately, their life.

Differing Perspectives on the Shift to Online Learning

Another common theme across higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic is how the transition to online learning was perceived differently by college administrators, faculty and students.

Many college administrators viewed the Spring transition to online positively, as they believed they adapted quickly and offered their best. This is true –in a matter of days, faculty made the pivot to offering course material online with little to no training. And during the summer months, many institutions proactively designed training to equip faculty for the challenges that a full semester of online learning would bring. Many professors gained confidence in their abilities to facilitate a full semester online, but others still struggled. One college administrator shared with us that they felt that the pivot to online was "manageable" for faculty without online teaching experience. Despite these efforts, the pivot to online learning was widely considered a disaster from the student perspective.

Students in our focus groups shared that Spring semester was especially difficult if they had professors that didn't know how to use the school's learning management system (like Canvas) and had to receive and submit assignments through email. Many spent the first chunk of class helping faculty navigate Zoom, and others struggled to stay engaged even when professors had some experience with online learning. Even weeks into the fall semester, students felt that more could have been done over the summer to improve the online experience. In one focus group, a junior at a state university shared, “Our professors did not get good, in-depth training on how to use the necessary technology. I think it was quick and rushed. I have one teacher who doesn't know how to use Canvas – I have to email her every day. It’s ridiculous.” For many, a significant amount of class time was still spent sorting out technical issues. Students had higher expectations for professors’ online teaching in the fall. However, these expectations were not met, contributing an additional layer of stress.

A lingering challenge in online education during the pandemic has been creating a sense of community in a virtual space. In focus groups, students reported feeling disconnected from their learning environment and peers. In one focus group, a sophomore at a public university enrolled in hybrid classes shared, “I miss making friends in classes and studying with them at the library. Now, it’s just like I’m studying alone. A lot of the classes I’m taking, my current friends aren’t taking those, they are all studying different majors. So it’s kind of lonely.” Isolation due to social distancing seems to be connected to student lack of motivation to continue with their coursework. 2020 was a huge learning curve for those unfamiliar with online learning, and many students and staff struggled. But moving forward, these lessons learned, combined with insight on the student and faculty experience and the wealth of research on online and in-person pedagogy, could make teaching and learning more effective and enjoyable.

Lack of Funds Led to Botched Reopenings

Many of the challenges institutions faced came as a result of insufficient or untimely federal financial relief. Colleges were able to survive the chaos of spring and the busyness of summer thanks in large part to the CARES Act, which eased financial losses from quickly going online in the Spring. But due to political gridlock, another round of support did not come in time for Fall semester. At that point, the decision on whether or not to stay online or resume in-person learning was not based on public health priorities for many colleges, but on whether they would financially make it to Spring 2021, or even survive Fall 2020.

For most colleges with smaller-than-Harvard-sized endowments, this sticky situation led to botched reopenings and questionable decisions that left faculty and staff, but especially students, feeling unsafe, dissatisfied, and frustrated. This was especially true for historically underfunded institutions like community colleges and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). College leaders and administrators balanced worries about student reaction to a virtual fall semester with institutional financial concerns. Campuses like the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill reopened for the fall and then quickly shuttered again when case counts were deemed out of control. In college towns, infection rates spread and death tolls mounted – making headlines.

Adding to the stress of insufficient funding, and further exacerbating botched reopenings, this year college enrollment was down with the sharpest decline in the freshman class. However, this was not felt equally across institution types and student groups. Compared to last fall, overall post-secondary enrollment was down 3.3 percent, with undergraduate enrollment down 4.4 percent. But out of all the institution types, community colleges experienced the sharpest drop offs in Fall 2020. Similarly, the Fall enrollment decline was most prominent among students of color. Enrollment numbers for this fall show that the already existing socio-economic and racial divides in academia grew, as underrepresented, low-income, student caregivers, and minority students faced the toughest hurdles to attend college. Additional federal relief is necessary to ensure colleges can make the right choices in the name of public health and that the pandemic's negative effects on college enrollment and retention is minimised, especially for students of color and low-income or first-generation students. Without it, this could mean mass college closures going forward.

Despite these struggles, both students and colleges found ways to be creative and resilient, and even considered or engaged in practices that could make the U.S. higher education system more equitable. However, as the pandemic rages on and the light at the end of the tunnel remains far, institutions and students continue to face challenges that are exacerbating existing equity gaps. Institutions will need to continue to be creative and push themselves to embrace this opportunity to create a better, more equitable system for today's students.

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