Students responded differently to changes in course delivery and other stresses posed by the pandemic, and their reactions differed based on age, gender and other factors, according to findings from the 2021 National Survey of Student Engagement, released Tuesday.
The survey of more than 230,000 first-year and senior students at 337 colleges and universities unsurprisingly found that more students were in online courses in 2021 than in years past. The majority of first-year students, 65 percent, took mostly remote classes, 16 percent took mostly hybrid courses and only 7 percent took most of their classes in person. Similarly, 66 percent of seniors took most of their courses remotely, 13 percent were mostly in hybrid courses and only 11 percent were mostly taking classes on campus.
A “dramatic uptick” in online learning during the pandemic wasn’t “terribly surprising,” said Alexander McCormick, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. However, the consequences of the pandemic for students’ mental wellness, especially among women, were a “big worry.”
The annual NSSE survey is a popular tool for college and university administrators to track the experiences of undergraduates, although some higher ed leaders have criticized the survey in the past and, more recently, have proposed alternative survey models.
A subset of respondents—7,413 first-year students and 9,229 seniors from 47 four-year colleges and universities—specifically addressed questions about how they responded to the challenges of the pandemic.
Female students were found to be more likely than men to experience mental health challenges during the pandemic. For example, among first-year students, 56 percent of women reported feeling increased anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning, compared to 36 percent of men. Female students also experienced heightened depression, hopelessness, mental and emotional exhaustion, and trouble sleeping at higher rates than their male peers.
Female students often report struggling with mental health issues at higher rates than their male counterparts, said Erica Riba, director of higher education and student engagement at the Jed Foundation, an organization focused on youth mental health.
In general, “I think there was this level of mental exhaustion, having to navigate learning remotely against home life responsibilities,” she said. “Many students were sharing their homes with families and trying to navigate some of that stress. I think the communication chaos of the last few years—following protocols, stress around news—I think it was overwhelming for both the students in classrooms and the faculty and staff trying to navigate uncertainty and being fearful of infection and sort of this collective trauma.”
Students new to college also struggled more than seniors with a remote course load. First-year students taking mostly remote courses were more likely to report that the pandemic interfered with their college plans and their preferred living situation. Students mostly in remote and hybrid courses also struggled with mental health issues, such as trouble concentrating, at higher rates. In contrast, first-year students predominantly in on-campus courses were more likely to feel that their professors were meaningfully responsive to students’ needs.
Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said the survey “reinforces the value of the student experience face-to-face.”
“One of the things that we have come to understand through these last couple years is the times students spend interacting with each other, whether that be informally at a late-night evening interaction at a residence hall or an on-campus job or a student activity of some sort, that these aren’t frivolous, that they really connect very directly to students’ well-being, but also to their academic success as well,” he said.
The survey also found discrepancies between nontraditional-age students—first-year students 21 and older and seniors age 25 and older—and traditional-age students in terms of how they perceived the pandemic. Older students were less likely to feel like the pandemic interfered with their college plans or their ability to succeed as students, and they experienced mental health issues at lower rates. However, older first-year students were more likely to worry about their ability to pay bills, their health and safety, and whether they had access to adequate medical care. Older students in general reported caring for family members and others at higher rates than their traditional-age peers.
“Traditional-age students are the ones who were anticipating or who have kind of spent most of their life expecting a regular collegiate experience, and they’ve been conditioned for that, and suddenly they’re dealing with all of these adjustments and adaptations,” said McCormick. “The older students are already having to make adjustments in their lives in order to pursue higher education or return to higher education. In some ways, they might be more resilient and more prepared for difficulty.”
The report also examined how different measures of student engagement changed on average at institutions in 2021, compared to prior to the pandemic, based on results from 296 colleges and universities. Some forms of student engagement declined notably at most institutions, more so for first-year students than seniors, particularly modes of engagement that typically involve a face-to-face component, such as collaborative learning and interactions between professors and students.
For collaborative learning in particular, “modality really does make a difference,” McCormick said.
However, other measures of student engagement did not decline substantially on average at most institutions.
Even with all the challenges associated with online courses, colleges continued to engage students and “kind of weathered the disruption,” he said. “That’s actually, to me, really reassuring.”