Inviting feedback from college students doesn’t necessarily mean they feel heard -- just as spelling out campus department functions online doesn’t guarantee students know whom to turn to when an issue arises. With higher ed financial models relying on satisfied students who stay and complete their studies, those realities spell trouble.
Add COVID-19 to the mix, and there's even more reason for concern. Although higher ed institutions transitioned quickly last year to teaching and supporting students from a distance as COVID kept them apart -- and continued to enhance their offerings as pandemic life settled in -- many students have struggled to access needed help remotely.
The above truths emerge as key takeaways for higher ed from the inaugural Student Voice survey of 2,000 undergraduates from 114 two- and four-year colleges and universities. Student Voice, a project conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, explores higher education from the student perspective, providing insights for college and university administrators and instructors.
View an infographic with survey results and actions for colleges to take.
A few other notable findings from the survey:
- Just 21 percent of respondents say they have spoken up about a campus issue that was important to them -- with many saying they did not anticipate officials would act on the concern.
- More than two-thirds of students either strongly (28 percent) or somewhat (39 percent) agree that they feel comfortable sharing opinions in their classes. That's more true for liberal students than for right-leaning ones, with 74 percent of those identifying as "strong Democrats" and 53 percent of "strong Republicans" agreeing. Differences by race are minimal, with Black and white students at 65 and 66 percent, respectively, and Asian (73 percent) and Hispanic/Latino students (74 percent) moderately more comfortable.
- More than half (52 percent) of students feel it’s extremely or somewhat likely that a professor would resolve a concern to their satisfaction, compared to 34 percent who say the same about administrators. International students have the most faith in professors resolving concerns, with 64 percent believing it's extremely or somewhat likely.
- Half of students are just slightly (32 percent) or not at all (18 percent) confident that if they had to raise an issue on campus, they would know which department could address it. Varsity athletes emerge as one group with more confidence than others, with 62 percent feeling they would know what department to turn to.
This initial Student Voice survey, fielded from Feb. 5 to 15, was designed to gauge whether and how much college and university students believe their perspectives are heard, and their concerns addressed, on their campuses. Because students responded as they and U.S. institutions are nearing the one-year mark of the start of the pandemic and ensuing recession, and half of the respondents were starting the spring semester with online-only classes, their concerns are closely linked to the current moment.
The cost of attending college, financial pressures facing students and student mental health emerged as the top three issues respondents (88 percent of whom are age 22 or younger) want their college to pay attention to. These same issues -- in reverse order -- top the list of concerns students feel most uncomfortable discussing with campus officials.
“As an industry, higher ed has been unbelievably responsive to the pandemic,” says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. Colleges have provided internet access, emergency aid and food pantries, to name a few efforts.
As responsive as campuses have been, though, three-quarters of students report at least some difficulty getting help from their college due to COVID. That finding suggests there could never really be enough supports during this difficult moment, Kruger says. “It underscores how challenging this year has been to students. It’s impossible to meet their needs in the way they would want.”
Part of the issue is likely accessibility in a remote environment, says Aarika Camp, who joined Goucher College in Baltimore as vice president and dean of students in August. Before, students could pop in to a student affairs office, or stop an administrator as they're eating lunch. "I can understand where the students are coming from," she says. "The accessibility has shifted. We’re still available on Zoom, but it’s more structured.”
Student voices have contributed to recent campus decision making at Goucher, however. Its leaders, for example, along with many other colleges, originally planned a compressed spring 2021 semester that eliminated spring break. Through Goucher’s app, which includes an Ask the President portal, many students expressed concern about needing that break to ease the kind of stress they recalled feeling in the fall.
“We’ve changed the semester because of it,” says Camp. “Now we have a spring ‘pause.’” With two Zoom-free days, students can break from classes, and some will be able to move into campus residence halls at that time.
Officials explained how accreditation would be at risk if they scheduled an entire week for a break, but the pivot showed that students were heard. “It’s our responsibility if we’re going to say no to explain why not, or explain why not right now,” says Camp.
Following are additional insights from the Student Voice survey on what percentage of students are speaking up, whom they are turning to and how they perceive likely outcomes.
Only One in Five Students Speaks Up
When asked if they have spoken up about an issue of importance to them in college, just 21 percent of students affirm that they have. Seniors are more likely to have done so, with 30 percent of 2021 graduates saying they have expressed themselves. Slicing the data by political leaning, 28 percent of those identifying as “strong Democrats” have spoken up (compared to 13 percent of “strong Republicans”). Race may also come into play, with 29 percent of those identifying as being of two or more races, and 27 percent of Black students, having done so.
Kruger says students expressing themselves about societal and political beliefs is important, but that they also should speak up to bring about institutional change. One factor keeping them from doing so is how change tends to not happen rapidly on campuses unless stakeholders put significant energy into the cause. “The pace of change doesn’t line up with the four-year degree,” he says, adding that this can frustrate students.
Sean Stevens from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says the survey findings about students’ academic class, political leaning and race are consistent with data from other research. Students tend to arrive on campus really looking to express themselves, and then speaking out may dip for sophomore and junior years before the student feels more comfortable as a senior and may bring issues to the forefront before graduating.
Studies from FIRE and elsewhere have pointed to multiracial students as feeling slightly more comfortable speaking up than others, adds Stevens, a senior research fellow for polling and analytics at the free speech group. As for politics, FIRE data from last fall’s survey of free speech at 55 institutions show that the student body at most colleges is more liberal leaning -- and in that context students who match the popular political profile are more likely to speak up.
For Grant Loveless, a part-time third-year student at Austin Community College and student advisory board member for the Student Voice project, speaking up has meant advocating for equity and inclusion and seeking safe spaces for all, both in person and online. He resurrected the Black Success Committee and now pursues his activism in part through the Black Representation of Achievement through Student Support (BRASS) program and the LGBT eQuity Committee.
Earlier, involvement in an engineering club spurred Loveless's passion for organizing programs -- in that case programs to help students explore STEM careers. “It amplified and told me to find my voice,” he says.
Respondents to the Student Voice survey offered several reasons why they had (and hadn't) expressed themselves on their campuses, including that advocating is best done through a student organization and that since they haven’t attended campus in person yet, they don’t know what issues are present and relevant.
Some students expressed concern about administrators taking action. One student wrote, “I don’t think the college would listen to me. You are encouraged to freely share your views but the college won’t actually do anything about a problem unless it affects them financially.”
Offering advice for others about speaking up, another student suggested approaching top administrators rather than “the little ‘student concerns’ offices in between” because such departments “just transfer you to other offices and you’ll be exhausted.”
Students Are More Likely to Raise Issues With Professors Than With Administrators
About one-third (32 percent) of students surveyed said they feel comfortable sharing their perspective on issues that are meaningful to them with their professors (second only to their peers, among the question’s 11 possible responses). Besides academic advisers (at 31 percent), other staff options were not selected by many respondents.
“From the students’ perspective, because the faculty is the first point of contact, it’s not a surprising finding,” says Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Pandemic-era professors are especially on the front lines. Katarina Draskovic, another Student Voice advisory board member, has noticed her professors at Santa Clara University in California including contacts for mental health and tutoring support right in their syllabi.
“They are emphasizing the services more,” says Draskovic, a 21-year-old commerce and business management major anticipating her graduation in March. “Certain professors also spend time in class talking about it, or if they sense students are stressed, they’ll say to remember the resources on campus or will be flexible with [assignment] timelines.”
Other Student Comments on Feeling Heard
- “It’s hard to voice our opinion on campus when we don’t even have a campus to go on to. Everything is shut down and it’s just hard.”
- “There are many voices on campus and I believe many of them have already spoken of the issues that concern them and I feel I must boost their voices rather than speak over them.”
- “As much as the college expresses its desire for new perspectives, they only want new perspectives that fit their agenda, not perspectives that they disagree with.”
- “I don’t share my views because my college campus isn’t a safe place for me. I have a conservative viewpoint when it comes to a lot of things, and through my years in college, it’s been made very clear to me that my opinion is not the majority, nor is it encouraged.”
And as noted above, students are much less likely to believe an administrator would satisfactorily resolve a concern than a professor; that, however, does not apply to students at two-year colleges, who are likelier than their four-year peers to envision an administrator would resolve their concerns.
At his community college, Loveless says students know they can trust both professors and administrators, and both are involved in organizations such as student government.
Matthew To, currently in his last semester at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, has been close to professors but feels like he can approach campus leaders a bit more.
“I see from a front-facing perspective how responsive administration is,” says To, who has been president of a professional business fraternity and vice president of a student entrepreneurship and innovation club. “But there is a bureaucracy. You have to go through many loops and holes to get through,” he adds.
Although To, who is also on the Student Voice advisory board, knows President Soraya Coley, he turns most often to the administrative support coordinator in the business school dean’s office when issues come up. “She’s a safe person for me to talk to,” he says, adding that she goes above and beyond her formal role to empathize with and help students.
Camp has seen relationships between faculty and staff grow stronger because “faculty members are doing more triage than ever before,” she says. “I think there’s more mutual respect between the two populations on campus. We’re understanding more the multiple roles of faculty, and faculty are understanding more the support mechanisms in place.”
AAC&U, says McNair, is hearing from students that “they want to expand the group of people who have opportunities to address their needs.” And because every person on campus contributes in some way to the success of students, “everybody has the capacity to be an effective educator,” adds McNair, who is currently working on a new edition of Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success, the 2016 book she co-wrote.
Students’ Perceptions of Outcomes Influence How They Speak Up -- or Decide Not To
For many students, sharing an opinion during classroom discussion is a somewhat low-stakes way to speak up. Diverse opinions are welcome in classes, say 69 percent of students surveyed.
Students, as it turns out, are a lot more likely to feel comfortable speaking up when all their classes are online, the survey found. One-third of respondents (32 percent) with full remote learning to start this semester agree strongly that they feel comfortable, compared to 17 percent of those with in-person-only classes and 20 percent with a hybrid format.
Loveless surmises that this may be due to many students feeling comfortable being at home, physically alone. “In my own experience, I’ve never had an issue speaking in the classroom,” he says. “But it’s comfortable when I can just click on my mike. And I don’t need to look around at others’ reactions to my opinion.”
Political leaning appears to impact students feeling diverse opinions are welcome. While 14 percent of all students disagreed strongly or somewhat about professors and peers welcoming various viewpoints, conservative students were much more likely to disagree. Among respondents who identify as leaning Republican, 26 percent disagreed, as did 24 percent of those who are "weak Republican" and 23 percent of those who consider themselves strong Republicans.
When asked about their comfort in speaking up about the overall college experience as opposed to within classes, 64 percent of students agree somewhat (35 percent) or strongly (29 percent) that there are opportunities to share feedback. But they’re much less likely to report that administration makes it clear they want to know about their experiences. While 46 percent agree with that statement, only 19 percent strongly agree.
Whom do students think campus leaders want to hear from? When asked what group their colleges are most likely to listen to, the top response was donors (42 percent), followed by faculty (30 percent) and finally students (25 percent). As NASPA’s Kruger points out, “the public massively overestimates the influence of donors. It happens, but [mostly at] the elite institutions. With community colleges and regional publics, you just don’t see the impact of donors in that way.”
Whether or not an institution acts on student feedback, of course, depends on the situation. “If a student wants more cookies in the convenience store, that’s easy,” says Camp. “But it’s not if you want a new science building on campus.”
To, the Cal State Pomona student, realizes that some may feel ostracized for speaking up about institutional issues. “I do feel heard, but the harsh reality is that most students don’t feel heard,” he says. “It’s so easy to blame administration for things that are out of our hands. It’s extremely hard to solve all these issues, though. It often comes down to a lack of resources.”
On the multiple occasions that Draskovic raised an issue at Santa Clara, she has also felt her opinions were heard. “Students are kept in the loop,” she says.
Institutional officials can strive to narrow the gap between students feeling they have opportunities to provide feedback and feeling that campus leaders want to receive and act on it.
“It always should be an imperative to look for ways to seek students’ input and break down any real or perceived barriers on the expression of divergent interests,” says Kruger. “If we want a society that allows people to engage in differences in productive ways, we have to have that in the university.”
And if colleges and universities can teach students to advocate for themselves, says Camp, “hopefully they can use those same tactics in a global setting to make sure their voices are heard.”