In the wake of extreme economic uncertainty, and with many colleges and universities going virtual for the fall 2020 semester, the coronavirus pandemic has sent unprecedented shocks through the higher education system. For higher education institutions to serve their students and communities through the pandemic, they must understand how students are being affected and for whom the impacts are most severe.
To learn about the effects of the pandemic on students’ postsecondary persistence and trajectories as we approach the fall semester, we analyzed data from the Understanding America Survey — a nationally representative longitudinal panel study of American parents aimed at understanding the impacts of the coronavirus on education. We harnessed three waves of data collected from the same households over time between April 15 and July 21. Respondents reported on their child(ren)’s, another household member’s and/or their own experiences and plans related to postsecondary education during the 2019-20 school year and looking forward to fall 2020. The sample size for the latest wave of data, collected from June 24 to July 21, includes 795 individuals.
First, one piece of relatively good news. Our results indicate that as of July 21 the overall impact of the coronavirus on the fall plans of students who were already enrolled in some form of postsecondary education in spring 2020 before COVID-induced shutdowns was modest. Only 2 percent of those students say they and/or their child/household member are not enrolling in the fall and cite COVID as a reason, and another 3 percent say they are changing institutions as a result of COVID. While 11 percent of these respondents say they are taking fewer classes as a result of COVID, 10 percent say they are taking more classes. While the fall effects appear quite modest, there may be important effects down the road — 20 percent of respondents report that COVID has influenced their ability to finish their program on time.
That said, the impact of COVID varies based on the type of institution that students attend, with two-year institutions and graduate programs seeing the largest effects. For instance, students attending two-year institutions are considerably more likely to report plans to change their class load — 15 percent plan to take more classes, 20 percent plan to take fewer classes — than students attending four-year undergraduate (7 percent more classes, 8 percent fewer classes), or students attending graduate programs (8 percent more classes, 8 percent fewer classes).
Second, two pieces of bad news. For one, troubling economic and other stressors may affect students in the fall as they return to college. For instance, 23 percent of postsecondary-enrolled respondents report increased family care responsibilities due to COVID, 23 percent report their employment status changed as a result of COVID and 28 percent have an increased desired to be close to home. Many students enrolled in higher education are reliant on jobs near their college, which may not exist in the same numbers in the fall. Students who were previously able to afford textbooks may now need their institution to help cover these costs, while students who have taken on a larger caretaking role may require greater flexibility in their attendance and/or deadlines on their assignments. In combination, these results support proposals like the National College Attainment Network-backed push to substantially increase or even double the current Pell Grant amount of $6,345, as higher education students may need more financial support if they are to stay enrolled and succeed in the fall semester.
The other bad news is that there are sizable gaps in impact by race, class and institution type. For example, lower proportions of white respondents (3 percent) and upper-middle-income respondents, who make between $75,000 and $149,000 annually (5 percent), stated plans to take fewer classes as compared to respondents in Asian (29 percent), Hispanic (24 percent) and low-income households with less than $25,000 annual income (18 percent). The decision to enroll in fewer classes as a result of COVID may result in students from these groups taking longer to complete their programs. While the exact supports students will require remain unclear, certainly increased financial assistance is a definite and current need.
In the immediate term, colleges and universities should consider programs to retain and support students, such as providing institutional grant aid to students forced to go part-time and increasing out-of-class assistance like mental health services for those students hit hardest by the pandemic. In the longer term, institutions should plan and budget to have more students enrolled than they may have in past years, as this cohort of students may need more time to complete their programs than is traditional.
Over all, relatively few respondents indicate plans not to re-enroll at all. But Hispanic (27 percent) and low-income (27 percent) respondents are much more likely to say that COVID affected a household member’s re-enrollment decisions than white (7 percent) or upper-middle-income respondents (7 percent). Those student groups may be especially at risk of financial difficulties in the 2020-21 school year, in turn financially affecting the institutions in which they had been enrolling.
Why are re-enrollment plans so different across groups? One probable reason is inequities in the impact of COVID on household expenses and responsibilities. For instance, 35 percent of Hispanic households with students enrolled in postsecondary education and 40 percent of Asian households report COVID-related increases in household responsibilities relative to 15 percent of each of white and Black households. Black respondents were more than twice as likely as white ones to report increased expenses for food, housing and tuition due to COVID (25 percent versus 10 percent). These students even more so than other groups are likely to need financial help and academic flexibility. That may especially be the case for Black students, whose enrollment in selective colleges and universities has declined since 2000. With this knowledge, postsecondary institutions that serve large Black and lower-income populations should take special care to accommodate such increases in family care responsibilities and expenses by perhaps offering more flexible tuition payment plans and course offerings.
As campuses welcome back students this fall in one form or another, institutions that respond to their students’ specific needs will enact the most impactful policy change. Policy makers should allow higher education institutions the leeway they need to adapt to the changing contexts of the pandemic. College and university administrators must be ready to adopt and adapt policy more flexibly than in any other year. And already disadvantaged students, as well as those personally adversely affected by the pandemic, will need more financial support if they are to enroll and persist.