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What college students are thinking about the pandemic and how it is impacting their lives | COMMENTARY

College students are facing new health, educational and economic realities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
College students are facing new health, educational and economic realities because of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Med / Baltimore Sun)

Residential colleges and universities across the country are in the midst of planning for a capricious fall semester. The coronavirus, which forced an unprecedented move to online instruction this past March, hasn’t gone away, and neither have the financial challenges facing every aspect of American higher education.

But what do college students actually think about the impact of COVID-19 and its implications for their educational goals? To find out, we conducted a nationally representative survey of adult members of Generation Z, defined as those born after 1996, via a Qualtrics online panel. The survey, conducted from May 20-28, included 508 respondents who were or will be pursuing a degree full-time at a four-year residential college. Their views can help shed some light on the concerns and decision-making process of students as they look toward the future.

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For starters, the biggest coronavirus concern among college students was the health of their families. Similarly high levels of overall concern were expressed toward the ability to attend/finish college, the financial situation of their families, the ability to get a job and their own personal financial situation. Perhaps reflecting both the perceived invincibility of youth and the higher risk of death from COVID-19 among the elderly, nearly 30% of college students said they were “not at all” concerned about the impact on their own health.

The diminished level of concern over personal health, and its potential impact on individual behavior, should be a red flag for the professionals tasked with implementing and enforcing public health measures aimed at preventing an outbreak on campus. A return to campus isn’t a return to normalcy. And students will be faced with a number of restrictions aimed at keeping themselves, their peers, faculty and staff safe.

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Fortunately, like most Americans, the students in our survey were largely supportive of the shelter-in-place measures implemented across the country to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Most (66%) thought they were “worth it,” while less than a quarter viewed the orders as unnecessary burdens on people and the economy. But even a small percentage of noncompliant students can make a big impact in the close quarters of campus life. Disease mitigation measures like masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing only work when every member of a campus community is consistent in their use and practice.

A survey of 310 college presidents conducted by the American Council of Education found that a large majority of institutions are planning to return to some variation of on-campus instruction in the fall. But a second wave of COVID-19, which already seem to be materializing in some areas of the country, could quickly change these plans.

So, what would students do if a residential reopening were no longer an option and colleges moved instruction back online? Our survey shows little indication that a large number of college students will feel compelled to defer enrollment or to enroll at another institution that offers online-only degrees. In fact, a remarkable 71% of current students said they would take the online classes offered by their current college or university.

This is, of course, not to suggest that the mode of education is the primary driver in the decision to attend or return to college in the age of COVID-19. Even though we find that the majority of college students say they now intend to stay enrolled with their current institution even if a return to online education ensues, those plans may still be in limbo if the pandemic places additional economic pressures. In fact, nearly 60% of the students we surveyed said that the economic fallout from the coronavirus has impacted their or their family’s ability to afford college.

The balancing act between health concerns, educational goals and economic realities are clearly weighing heavily on students and higher education in general. Federal financial help in the form of grants, tuition assistance or debt relief during the pandemic are some potential ways to help students and the colleges who hope to welcome them back — residential or online — in the fall. And it’s a worthy investment. The presence of the coronavirus only heightens the need for the next generation to be prepared to solve the health, societal and financial problems of a changed world.

Mileah Kromer (Mileah.Kromer@goucher.edu) is the director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College. Melissa Deckman (mdeckman2@washcoll.edu) is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College.

Note: Washington College, the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher College, and the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, and IGNITE, a national nonprofit that trains young women to be political leaders, funded the survey.

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