COVID-Era College: Are Students Satisfied?

Students reflect on what has worked, what has not and what they want from their colleges post-COVID. (Hint: Keep that lecture recording button handy and virtual support options available.)

March 24, 2021
 
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Trying to get a pulse on students’ satisfaction this academic year to better support them has been like dreaming an impossible dream. As college and university leaders have reopened campuses, following meticulous plans with 100-page summaries, student feedback has been positive, negative and everything in between.

While perusing social media posts, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania’s provost concluded this: “We were doing everything right and nothing right simultaneously,” says Diana Rogers-Adkinson.

Findings of a new Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan, indicate that students, as a group, are deeply ambivalent about their college experiences right now. For example:

  • 43 percent of those back to campus in some capacity are at least somewhat satisfied with the extent to which they can see friends and meet peers; 38 percent are at least somewhat dissatisfied. Satisfaction is greater at private nonprofit colleges (50 percent) than at public institutions (39 percent).
  • 40 percent of students back on campus are at least somewhat satisfied about their ability to connect with faculty and staff; 34 percent feel dissatisfied. Older students are more likely to report extreme satisfaction -- 43 percent of those age 24 and up, compared to 12 percent of all students.
  • 35 percent of those now on campus are somewhat or extremely satisfied with how accessible in-person student services are, while 29 percent are dissatisfied. Responses from public and private institutions are about even.

Students were even torn on whether they anticipated common COVID mitigation strategies. Among respondents who have returned to campus, 57 percent did not initially expect to have fewer in-person classes than pre-COVID, 45 percent didn't expect regular COVID testing and 41 percent didn't expect physically distanced spaces.

Envisioning life after COVID, nearly one-third “never want to take another class via Zoom”; half responded that while some things about remote learning worked for them, they are “anxious to get back to all or more in-person classes.”

And (pay attention, enrollment management professionals at tuition-dependent residential institutions), 9 percent of the 2,000 undergraduates from 120 colleges surveyed don’t ever want to return to in-person classes.

The survey, fielded March 2 through March 9 and representing mainly traditional-age students, is the second one conducted for the Student Voice project, which provides higher ed administrators and instructors with insights on student perspectives.

As senior vice president and provost of Bloomsburg, a public institution that reopened campus in the fall, Rogers-Adkinson sympathizes with students, many of whom are first generation and have been home. “They may be struggling to help others around them understand their priorities and the demands of class,” she says. “Some students are also helping siblings with schoolwork.”

Bloomsburg is currently offering one-quarter of classes in person, as administrators and faculty continually try to strengthen online learning. “Our students are anxious to be back face-to-face, and they made it very clear at the end of the fall semester that they preferred synchronous learning,” Rogers-Adkinson says. “We built out what I would call a flat interactive classroom but plan on retrofitting classrooms to allow for more audience participation.”

Take a closer look at student living and learning experiences during COVID and their hopes for post-pandemic college life.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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Welcome Back (Sort Of)

It’s clear to anyone paying attention: the majority of college students look forward to more carefree days. Over all, those who have returned “are happy to be on campus, no matter how you slice or dice that,” says Mary DeNiro, CEO and executive director of ACUHO-I, the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International.

Simran Kaur Malhotra, a University of Georgia sophomore who splits her time between an off-campus apartment and her parents’ home 90 minutes away, says she misses “hanging out with friends whenever I wanted to. We wouldn’t have to make plans or anything. It was a very chill life.” While some classes are available in person, as a premed pathway student with a grandmother in the household, Malhotra has chosen remote learning to stay safe. “I haven’t met anyone new,” she adds.

Lafayette Bussey, who took the fall semester off from Brown University and recently returned to begin his sophomore year, is in the same boat in terms of meeting people outside his circle. He misses “fighting people” (through a mixed martial arts club, that is), singing with his a cappella group (in person) and playing Ultimate Frisbee (“unwilling podmates,” he explains).

“Friends and social life” was selected most often in a question asking respondents to choose the top three (out of nine) aspects of campus life that are most missed, with nearly three-quarters selecting it. One respondent at a college in Washington State notes feeling extremely lonely: “I’ve been on campus two months and the only people I’ve talked to for more than a minute are staff at doctor’s appointments.”

While in-person lectures are second-most missed, No. 3 is also nonacademic -- participating in clubs and organizations. Malhotra founded a Doctors Without Borders student chapter during COVID. Nearly all activity has been virtual, but about 500 members have raised more than $10,000 to support the international organization.

Two-year students (who represent 250 of the survey respondents) had the same top two but a different third-most-missed item: libraries and study spaces.

Donald Guy Generals, Community College of Philadelphia’s president, says his students’ social lives have traditionally involved a lot of community activities, such as helping local schools with community gardens. Students who continued their education through the pandemic (about 10 percent of the college’s enrollment did not) also need a place to have conversations they might not be able to have at home, conversations that help develop racial and cultural identities. “Schools are safe zones for many of our students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Generals, whose institution has been unable to open yet for in-person classes. “We offer a platform for students to express themselves and engage with others.”

Students on reopened campuses (half of the survey sample) likely had five to 10 months to get used to pandemic life. Yet, a question about what virus mitigation measures they had expected to see when they returned revealed a surprising trend: one in five anticipated college to be about the same as pre-pandemic, and many others didn’t imagine specific basic safety precautions in place.

More than half of returning students had not expected fewer in-person classes and events, or changes to dining such as fewer communal dining spaces and more take-home meals, compared to pre-pandemic. Between three in 10 and four in 10 students didn’t anticipate hand-sanitizing stations, indoor mask wearing for students and professors, physically distanced spaces or regular COVID testing. Students whose campuses have not yet opened up are just slightly more likely to anticipate a return involving such measures.

“Eighteen- to 22-year-olds at times don’t believe the world responds the same way to them,” DeNiro says. “They take more risks, and the way they process information is different.”

What about all that pre-return communication clearly outlining policies? “As those in marketing say, you have to send a message seven times in seven different ways for people to understand,” she quips.

Eric Wood, director of Texas Christian University’s Counseling & Mental Health Center, has a similar theory. “Many students knew something would change but didn’t think about what the changes would be or how it might affect them personally,” he says. According to the health belief model in social psychological professions, those who don’t feel susceptible to health risk are less likely to change behavior or take precautions. Students may have assumed schools would make changes impacting “other people,” like faculty and staff, Wood explains.

Political leanings could also have influenced responses, even though students weren’t asked what precautions they “wanted.” Democrats were generally more likely than Republicans to anticipate changes. Regional differences in responses were minimal, although international students were more likely to expect mitigation measures.

Expectations aside, students generally fell into line. Two-thirds of those who have returned to campus are at least somewhat satisfied with overall procedures in place for safety during COVID; only 16 percent are dissatisfied.

Bussey, who serves on Student Voice’s Student Advisory Board, says he’s “completely satisfied” with Brown’s “extremely rigorous” safety procedures. “The main complaint I’ll hear is about punitive measures for those who break the rules.”

Bino Campanini, senior vice president for student life and alumni affairs at Florida Institute of Technology, says that as an engineering and science institution (with engineering types tending to like protocol), “we didn’t have a lot of pushback.” One indication of buy-in: students often wear masks even when optional, such as while walking around outside.

As the health data reporter for The Red & Black, the independent newspaper covering the University of Georgia, Malhotra says officials “did the best they could, but it could have been better.” One concern involves the decision to reopen in a community with open bars right across the street. “I would see long lines of students going in, many of them not wearing masks correctly, and my heart would break,” she says. “What if the next day they went to an in-person class?”

As for tending to students’ mental health, rather than giving students a spring break, UGA leaders scheduled scattered days off. Malhotra’s professors planned exams right afterward, so those days haven’t served as breaks.

One Arizona university respondent says nothing worked well: “It was more just learning to adapt and live in constant frustration with the university’s and fellow students’ mediocre response.”

Higher ed should give more credit to students as a group, though, says DeNiro. “They may push the lines, but they get it. They’re smart kids, and they want to do what’s right.”

Services Satisfaction, Class Contentment

Students who have returned to their physical campuses, as noted above, are pretty evenly split on whether they are satisfied or dissatisfied by their access to in-person services.

Sometimes frustrations involve being unable to reach staff. When Smith College’s Student Financial Services office initially shuttered in-person operations, for example, office extensions couldn’t be forwarded to homes. Callers would hear a recording to please email so a Zoom meeting could be scheduled. “Because there was so much activity in terms of the change in [residential] status, staff were behind,” says Vice President for Enrollment Audrey Smith, who oversees the department. “Someone would email and not get an immediate response. Our customer service was not up to our expectations of ourselves, nor our families’ expectations of us.”

Now work volume has settled down and a new phone system enables a live greeting, even though employees remain remote.

Campus dining departments have had to overhaul operations, maximizing takeout and streamlining meal options. “They are certainly slower and there’s less choice and flexibility,” says DeNiro, adding that even “in normal times, students could be pretty critical” of dining.

At Brown, Bussey says students need to reserve a slot for a meal pickup -- and those slots will fill five hours in advance. “This has probably been the most frustrating thing for most students.”

5 COVID-Era Ideas

  1. Send safety reminders before times that may be associated with risky behavior. As St. Patrick’s Day approached, Bino Campanini, head of student life at Florida Tech, sent a video message noting that it's nearing the end of the semester. “Let’s not go backward,” he wrote. “The concern is when students are leaving campus, it’s like the Wild West,” he adds.
  2. Note sacrifices being made by all. Florida Tech made a point to tell students, for instance, that to help keep them safe the campus health center was serving only them, not staff, this year, Campanini says. Regular messages thank students for their support and hard work.
  3. Convert orientation and move-in days to drive-through events. Florida Institute of Technology families loved not having to park and walk from one check-in point to the next. Stations were set up in an S pattern so everyone could see what was coming up next, says Krishna Patel, director of student wellness and programming (and the university’s COVID case manager). “It was just so seamless -- we treated it as a Chick-Fil-A on steroids.” Officials plan to keep the new setup in place, perhaps making it more interactive once COVID is under control.
  4. Help students help each other. Texas Christian University’s Counseling & Mental Health Center had facilitated four student-led peer support communities when the pandemic hit. Since then there have been as many as 20 virtual groups, which are attended by staff but not therapy-based. “They’re designed to connect people with similar experiences,” says center director Eric Wood. Themes include anxiety, body and food relationships, trauma survival and supportive gaming.
  5. Connect individual students as “pen pals.” Through TCU’s virtual letter-writing campaign, launched last summer, a student (identified by first name/year) writes seeking support and requesting a reply. The reply may come from a student involved in a peer support community, a resident assistant or another student leader, and the writer may encourage further contact by adding an email address or phone number.

On the academic side, 80 percent of students struggle with motivation to complete coursework or attend classes.

Malhotra, who took two organic chemistry classes online, says, “It’s kind of hard because you can see your bed. They don’t mandate video and don’t know if you’re listening.”

Her parents, who are from India, are “very education- and hard work-driven,” she says. That upbringing helps in reminding herself she’s there to learn.

One Texas survey respondent noted that in-person learning is more motivating and less distracting: “Even if we can’t really talk to each other and are distant, it feels good to be in the presence of other students.

Rogers-Adkinson of Bloomsburg, which has an experience-based curriculum, says she can see how missing that piece would impact motivation.

Since her office is based in the library, she often sees students arriving for a day of classes in individual study rooms with an “arsenal” of snacks and drinks. “I’ll bring chocolate in for them,” she says.

Just 40 percent of students whose campuses are active are at least somewhat satisfied with faculty and staff connections. That number is 67 percent for two-year students.

“I think two-year faculty are more inclined to be responsive because of the nature of the community college student being less traditional,” says Generals. “Faculty are more willing to go beyond their office hours. They understand the needs of our students.”

Community college students are less likely to report online learning challenges; 10 percent say they haven’t experienced any at all, compared to 2 percent of four-year students. Perhaps two-year students are “less prone to complain about things, more willing to dig in and get the work done,” says Generals. “Our students are incredibly resilient. This is not the only trauma in their lives.” Plus, he adds, online classes may be more familiar to two-year students.

Over all, during COVID:

  • Nearly half of students surveyed report spending more time studying or working on assignments.
  • One-third have increased their course loads, with women (36 percent) more likely to do this than men (28 percent). Eighteen percent decreased their course loads. 
  • About one-third have taken on more paid employment hours.
  • One in five students have had more caregiving responsibilities this year. Malhotra, for instance, is helping both her younger sister with asynchronous online AP classes and her parents with getting her grandmother to doctor’s appointments and elsewhere.
  • Twenty percent joined or participated in an online club or group, with freshmen most likely to have done so (28%).
  • Only 10 percent of respondents report having spent time using career center services or focused on career development.

Visions of a COVID Aftermath

Data dicing on desires for future learning may provide insight into who wants what.

The one-third who never want another class via Zoom again are most likely to be male (42 percent versus 23 percent of women), at a four-year institution (33 percent versus 22 percent of two-year students) and politically conservative (over half of Independents who lean Republican and 42 percent of strong Republicans selected this response).

Among the half planning a return to fully or mostly in-person, two-thirds are currently in courses with a mix of synchronous and asynchronous sessions. Women (56 percent) are more likely than men (41 percent) to want a mix of classroom and home learning.

“I’m anticipating the return of in-person classes, but I don’t hate this so much,” says Bussey. “It’s really, really convenient to just log on. I don’t know that it’s the most conducive to my retaining information, but it has its advantages.”

The 9 percent who say they never want to return to in-person -- a group that could disrupt higher ed financial models -- are more likely to be female (11 percent) than male (6 percent).

That matches up with a conversation Rogers-Adkinson recently had with a science professor, who notices women contributing more on Zoom than they had face-to-face.

For a college like Smith, which has had a record number of applications this year, dealing with a suspected drop-off of students desiring online-only programs could be as simple as admitting a larger entering class, says Smith.

Tom Green, who oversees professional development for the enrollment management community of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), hesitates to predict that this data point indicates imminent crisis.

“Students do tend to answer with what’s right in front of them at the moment,” notes Green, an associate executive director at the organization.

But assuming some students do main online only after the pandemic, residential institutions expecting all their students to come in person could take a hit to the bottom line, he says. “Thinking about some of the smaller institutions, it is a big deal for them.”

Some schools Green has worked with have students with tremendous logistical hurdles getting to campuses. He can see them considering how great it would be to avoid, say, commuting an hour via three buses.

Unfortunately, “predictive models of the past aren’t going to help us that much now,” he adds. “We’re all watching to see what happens this fall.”

For now, “really strong, highly branded institutions are doing extremely well with their application numbers,” he says.

Fulfilling continuing students’ biggest post-COVID wishes could be challenging.

The top one, for 79 percent, is keeping lectures available online. Schools such as Community College of Philadelphia have used COVID relief funds to enable recording in classrooms, says Generals.

Colleges need to convince faculty to not fear this. “I always hear faculty worry that if they record, students won’t come to class,” says Rogers-Adkinson, formerly a faculty member at a high-disability campus, where students’ ability to review lectures later was crucial to success.

Students’ second hope -- nearly half selected this item -- is the option to toggle between in-person and online attendance.

“We should not put everything back in the building just because it used to be,” said one survey respondent in Arizona.

Generals agrees. “We’ve shown the classroom doesn’t need to be within the confines of four walls. And we can be a 24-7 operation.”

Rogers-Adkinson has noticed that some faculty -- such as those in Bloomsburg’s Zeigler College of Business -- seem most willing to move toward learning modality choice.

Thirty-seven percent of students would like to continue communicating privately with professors during class. “Some apps allow that kind of opportunity,” says Rogers-Adkinson. But it raises questions of lecture flow and integration of chat monitoring. Maybe a TA keeps track of the chat or it gets archived so the professor can reply later.

Respondents expressed a desire to ease back into college life. “Please don’t expect us to magically go back to normal pre-pandemic students right away,” one California student implored.

Rogers-Adkinson has been thinking about preparations for current freshmen who never had the campus experience returning as sophomores with a lot to learn about navigating life on campus. Also, what will students who spent a good chunk of time in K-12 being taught differently be looking for in a college?

One-third of students surveyed want continued access to virtual resources such as tutoring, advising or counseling. Wood anticipates most TCU students preferring in-person counseling but plans to continue remote sessions -- and evening hours.

Looking back at this time, he suspects all students will realize how much they learned not to take things -- like the ability to attend a football game -- for granted.

DeNiro adds, “They are going to be able to reflect on this time and recognize that even a pandemic couldn’t stop them from reaching their goals.”

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