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Nearly one year into the pandemic that upended higher education, students continue to be concerned about mental health, catching COVID-19 and the quality and challenges of online education.

New polling data collected in December for the nonprofit organizations New America and Third Way highlight some of these concerns, along with attitudes about college and university leadership, vaccines, and internet access. The organizations conducted similar polling in August of last year.

For those students learning online through the pandemic, the modality continues to have its drawbacks, polling showed. Over half of students said they have had to make purchases, such as computers, microphones or desks, to be able to learn online. For 70 percent of those students, the purchases came at “significant” cost. That number was notably higher among students who are parents or guardians to a child or caregiver for a family member, at 91 percent.

Internet access has been another barrier to online learning. Nearly 60 percent of respondents indicated that having access to stable, high-speed internet access was a challenge for them, though only 4 percent said they did not have sufficiently high-speed, reliable internet to complete their coursework.

“Students are finding ways to overcome that challenge, whether that’s physically moving into spaces that provide them internet access that they can use” or through other means, said Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way. But doing so, whether that means paying more for higher-speed internet or moving physically to coffee shops or other places where they can connect to Wi-Fi, can still alter a learning environment.

While online learning comes with challenges -- and over half of students said higher ed is not good quality when conducted online -- students learning online overwhelmingly say they want classes to remain in a hybrid or online format, with 76 percent agreeing over all. Black students, Latinx students and caregiving students were less likely than the general group to say they would rather take classes in person, at 8 percent, 7 percent and 7 percent, respectively, compared to 18 percent in the general survey.

For students generally, the pandemic has eroded some trust in college and university leadership, but not all of it. About half of students said the pandemic made them trust university leadership less than they did before, a number that goes up to 63 percent among Black students. Similarly, half of respondents agreed with the statement “My institution only cares about the money it can get from students.” But on the flip side, over 80 percent said their institutions cared about their safety or had ensured a safe on-campus experience.

“It has been surprising even back in August and now the amount of benefit of the doubt students really are giving their institutions,” Hiler said. “There has been a widespread acknowledgment that this is outside the control of colleges in many ways.”

Colleges and universities can earn students’ respect, Hiler said, by clearly communicating plans and decisions, even when they are not what students want to hear.

College students generally continue to be concerned about their well-being and health.

Seventy-nine percent of students surveyed said they were concerned about their mental health during the pandemic, up 8 percent since August. The only bigger concern for students was the disease itself, being infected or having loved ones affected. About 86 percent of students were concerned about friends and family catching the disease.

As a measure of how real that concern is, in August only 6 percent of respondents said they had been infected with COVID-19. Now, after three waves of outbreaks in the U.S., that number is up to 15 percent.

Looking forward to vaccine availability, only 68 percent said they would get the vaccine if it were required for the next academic year. That number was lower among caregiving students at 54 percent, and Black students at 49 percent. National data on the general population have suggested that Black Americans are more likely than their white or Hispanic peers to be hesitant about the vaccine. For students who said they would not get the required vaccine, what they would do instead, whether not going to college or trying to evade the mandate, was not asked in the survey.

The polling also asked college-bound high school seniors about their attitudes toward higher education. Three-quarters said the pandemic made them change their plans about applying to college, with nearly one-third applying closer to home. More than 20 percent said they were applying to institutions with lower tuition or with clear COVID-19 response protocols.

High school students, similarly to their peers in college, have expressed concerns about the cost of a college degree.

“The questions about value aren’t going away,” Hiler said. “We’ve consistently seen that people really still do see the value of and understand the importance of higher education, but it's very clear that there is just less tolerance now for the opacity that has existed for a long time in higher education around where tuition dollars are going and how institutions are using that money.”

The study surveyed 1,008 students in a national sample that was geographically and demographically representative. Black, Latinx and caregiving students were oversampled. Data collection took place in early December.

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