Quantifying COVID Impacts

A National Center for Education Statistics report documents the impact of the pandemic on student enrollment and financial stability across demographic categories and institution types.

June 17, 2021
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About 40 percent of undergraduates experienced a financial disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and 8.2 percent either withdrew (4.4 percent) or took a leave of absence (3.8 percent) from their institution, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics on the ways the pandemic affected undergraduate student finances, housing and enrollment.

Over all, 87.5 percent of students reported experiencing a disruption or change in their enrollment due to COVID-19, with 84.1 percent saying that some or all of their classes moved to online-only formats.

The report, which NCES says provides “the first national estimates of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on postsecondary students,” highlights the disparate experiences of students across racial, gender, economic, institutional and other lines in spring 2020. The report covers the period ending June 30 of last year.

“This report really helps people understand what was happening at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Tracy Hunt-White, a project officer for NCES.

Among the findings, students at private, for-profit colleges withdrew or took leaves of absence at higher rates than did students at public or private nonprofit institutions.

Meanwhile, 6.8 percent of students attending two-year public colleges said they withdrew from their institution due to COVID-19, compared to 2.7 percent at public four-year institutions and 2.9 percent at private, nonprofit four-year institutions.

Over all, 27.5 percent of undergraduate students experienced a housing disruption or change: 22 percent moved back to their permanent address, 5.3 percent moved to another living situation and 3 percent had difficulty finding safe and stable housing. The percentage of students identifying as genderqueer or gender nonconforming who said they had difficulty finding safe and stable housing was, at 9.1 percent, about three times the overall average. A high rate of international students (6.5 percent) also reported having difficulty finding safe and stable housing.

Among all undergraduates, 28.6 percent reported losing a job or lost income because of reduced work hours, and 9.1 percent reported difficulty accessing or paying for food. There were notable differences across racial groups: 13.5 percent of Black students, 12.6 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students, 11.8 percent of Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander students, and 9.9 percent of Hispanic students reported difficulty accessing or paying for food, compared to 7.3 percent each of white and Asian students.

Among college students who have dependent children under age 12, 21.7 percent of them reported difficulties finding safe and stable childcare, with female students being more likely than male students to report difficulties in this regard (23.7 percent versus 14.1 percent).

A little less than 15 percent of all students across institutional types reported receiving emergency financial assistance from their institution. Students who receive Pell Grants were more than twice as likely as students without Pell Grants to receive emergency financial assistance (22.5 percent versus 9 percent). Students at public two-year colleges were less likely than their counterparts at public four-year colleges to receive emergency assistance from their institution (10.3 percent versus 17.6 percent). Students at doctorate-granting four-year institutions were most likely to report receiving emergency aid from their institution (19.2 percent), while students at private for-profit colleges were least likely (8.9 percent).

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law during the survey period in late March 2020, included funding for colleges to distribute emergency aid to students. Legislation approved by Congress since the survey period ended last June has provided additional emergency funding for students.

“Overall, there’s lot of evidence that COVID exacerbated basic needs insecurity of many forms,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice in Philadelphia, which advocates for more financial support for college students' basic needs, and a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University, said on Twitter.

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Goldrick-Rab, an expert on college affordability, pointed out that students who withdrew from their institutions are “disproportionately African American, students 24 and up, and unmarried parenting students.”

According to the NCES data, 7.2 percent of Black students withdrew from their institutions, more than twice the rate of white students (3.4 percent). More than 6 percent of students aged 24 and older withdrew, compared to 3.4 percent of 15- to 23-year-olds. Meanwhile, 7.7 percent of unmarried students with dependents withdrew, compared to 3.3 percent of students who themselves are classified as dependents and 4 percent of married students with dependents.

“There’s a huge evident emergency aid gap: about 40% of students needed help, and only about 15% got it,” Goldrick-Rab wrote. “That gap holds across many subgroups -- for example, Pell recipients are more likely to have received [emergency assistance], but the access gap is just as big for non-Pell (1/3d needed help) dependents.”

The NCES survey also asked students whether they had received refunds in tuition or room and board costs due to COVID. In total, 27.3 percent of all undergraduates reported receiving a tuition refund due to COVID-19, and 38.3 percent reported receiving a room and board refund. U.S. citizen students were more likely to receive a tuition refund compared to international students (27.5 percent versus 19.3 percent).

About 70 percent (69.6 percent) of undergraduate students said their institutions provided helpful communication about COVID-19 impacts on access to coursework. Smaller percentages agreed that their institutions provided helpful communications about pandemic impacts on degree program progress (57.5 percent), on-campus or college-owned housing (55.6 percent), financial aid (44.6 percent), and campus employment (39.1 percent).

Additionally, 40.8 percent of students said their institutions provided needed information about obtaining physical or mental health care and about accessing emergency financial assistance from any source, and 37 percent said their institutions provided needed information about accessing food assistance.

"The data over all show us what we expected, which is that college students who were enrolled in postsecondary education did experience financial trouble from the pandemic," said Megan Coval, vice president for policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

She noted that low-income students and students from underrepresented minority groups clearly struggled more.

"I think that this can hopefully inform what we do in future situations where emergency aid is warranted, whether it is emergency aid on a widespread level or even individually," Coval said. "These data and any follow-up data should certainly be used to inform the way that we structure future emergency aid programs, whether at the federal or state level."

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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