Steven Volk (Co-Director, GLCA Consortium for Teaching & Learning; Oberlin College)

Over the seemingly interminable extent of the COVID pandemic, researchers have attempted to understand how students in higher education (and K-12) have been impacted by the disruptions. Much of the concern has been on the shutdown’s effect on student mental health and student learning. In terms of the first, the conclusions to date have been highly concerning, if unsurprising. A recently released study by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University, for example, reported that nearly two-thirds of respondents from a survey of 50,000 students indicated that the pandemic has led to significant mental health challenges, with more than 60% observing that they have lost “motivation and focus,” and nearly the same amount saying that the pandemic shutdown has negatively affected their academic success. A study based on the experiences of 419 first-year students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that they are reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety significantly more often than they were before the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers found the prevalence of moderate to severe anxiety in first-year college students increased 40%, from 18.1% before the pandemic to 25.3% within four months after the pandemic began; and the prevalence of moderate to severe depression in first years increased by 48%, from 21.5% to 31.7%.  

An early-in-the-crisis international survey of over 400 higher education institutions in 109 countries suggested that student learning would also take a hit, not just because of the aforementioned increased levels of student stress, but for all the reasons one would expect: vastly unequal access to online resources, curtailment of student mobility, instructors’  inexperience with online teaching teaching, and so on.

Many recent surveys are also pointing to areas of continuing concern in higher education that the crisis have exacerbated. Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse recently reported on the first findings in their “Student Voice” project designed to explore issues in higher education from the student perspective. Their initial survey (conducted from February 5-15, 2021) examined the extent to which students in higher education thought their concerns were being heard and addressed on campus. The survey asked students which issues they wished campus administrators would pay attention to when they raised them, and then compared that to the degree to which students themselves felt reluctant to discuss similar issues on their campus. For example, 35% of respondents (of a sample group of 2,000 students) wanted campus administrators to listen more to their concerns about mental health issues, whereas 23% felt reluctant themselves to discuss the issue on campus. Some areas of greatest concern (e.g. college costs and financial pressures faced by students) demonstrated the greatest disparity between what the students wanted the administrators to pay attention to (where it ranked high) and the degree to which they were themselves willing to raise the issue (indeed, they were quite willing to talk about it). On the other hand, the survey disclosed a handful of more difficult issues (e.g., racial inequality and campus free speech) where students reported that administrators were more willing to engage then were they.

Are Students Comfortable Speaking Up?

Those tendencies are also evident in the survey’s finding that only 21% of students had spoken up about an issue of importance to them in college. Affirming one’s voice seemed to correlate roughly with age, as the percentage of students who reported having spoken up about an issue of importance to them increased over the years, finally reaching 30% as seniors. There was also a rough correlation with political affiliation (with “strong Democrats” at 28% compared with “strong Republicans” at 13%) and race (29% of those identifying as being of two or more races, and 27% of Black students), reporting that they had spoken up on an issue of importance to them.

The “Student Voice” polling also disclosed some positive news about classroom practices. Nearly two-thirds of students somewhat or strongly agreed that they felt “comfortable sharing [their] opinions” in class, 69% felt similarly when asked if diverse opinions were welcomed in their classes, and three-quarters agreed that there were opportunities to share feedback about their courses. Politics, not surprisingly, impacted how students reacted to these questions. While only 14% of students disagreed somewhat or strongly when asked if professors and peers welcomed various viewpoints, more conservatives than liberals were likely to disagree with that statement. Among respondents who identify as “leaning Republican,” 26% disagreed, as did 24% of those who were “weak Republican,” and 23% of those who consider themselves “strong Republicans.”

About one-third of students surveyed said they felt comfortable sharing their perspective on issues that are meaningful to them with their professors, with three-quarters, not surprisingly, feeling most comfortable sharing their thoughts with their peers. During the pandemic, professors have taken on an even larger role, moving to the front lines of student concerns especially regarding issues of mental health and tutoring support. Syllabi now regularly include contacts for mental health support, and professors often spend class time talking about the support that is available to students. Tia Brown McNair, vice president for diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), has noted that her organization is hearing from students who “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, she observed, “everybody has the capacity to be an effective educator.”

Recent polling by the Heterodox Academy disclosed similar a similar findings. In their Fall 2020 report, Understanding the Campus Expression Climate, they reached four conclusions: (1) Reluctance to discuss controversial topics increased in college classrooms from 2019 to 2020, (2) Republican students remained more reluctant to speak about controversial issues than Democrat and Independent students, (3) Students were most reluctant to discuss controversial topics when they were the majority demographic for the issue under discussion (e.g., white students were most reluctant to discuss race), and (4) Students were reluctant to speak up in class because they were concerned other students would criticize their views for being offensive.

The report found that there was an increase in reluctance to discuss controversial, and even non-controversial topics between 2019 and 2020.

Heterodox Academy:













In general, students were most reluctant to discuss controversial topics when they were the majority demographic for the issue under discussion.

Heterodox Academy:














Finally, when they asked “reluctant students” ( a subset of the 1,311 students sampled that endorsed reluctance to discuss at least one of the five general controversial topics: politics, race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender) whether they were concerned about each of the following consequences in the table below in speaking their opinion in college classrooms, these were the results:

Heterodox Academy:














Kevin Kruger, president of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) concludes that “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. If we want a society that allows people to engage in differences in productive ways,” he argues, “we have to have that in the university.” And Aarika Camp, the dean of students at Goucher College, stressed that colleges and universities have a role to play in helping students be self-advocates, so that, after graduation and making their way in the world, they can “make sure their voices are heard.”

Students and Trust

Feeling able to share perspectives with peers, faculty, or administrators is often a matter of trust, and a 2020 survey by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research – full version here – explored what they refer to as the “trust gap” among college students. As the survey stressed, “trust is a critical feature of everyday life,” probably no more so than at the present time of sharp partisan differences where a person’s very perception of reality seems firmly bound to the particular sources of information in which one puts one’s trust. This survey focused on five categories of trust: out-group trust, college trust, social institutional trust, media trust, and civil society trust. As the authors note, they observed two critical differences in college trust across student groups. With the exception of Asians, students of color (Black, Latina/o, multiracial, another race or ethnicity) exhibited substantially less trust in their college than White students, and students with a disability expressed lower college trust levels than able-identified students. The same results were apparent in all the other areas except for media trust where, interestingly, Asian and Black students reported greater media trust levels than White students.

Shannon Calderone, a professor of educational leadership at Washington State University and co-author of the report, said the findings about Black students’ general lack of trust “speaks to the alienation and lack of sense of belonging” historically felt by students of color at colleges. “It’s a relatively disappointing finding, obviously,” she added, given the efforts administrators have made over the past few years to created initiatives, offices, and policies directed at improving diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Looking at first-year students only, the survey’s authors found that at least 80% of the non-Black respondents either somewhat or completely trust the five types of campus staff they inquired about (leadership, student services, other staff, faculty, and academic advisors). Black or African American students, on the other hand, were found to trust campus personnel less by about 10 percentage points across all categories. And, consistent with the “Student Voice” findings, the survey found that regardless of race, the most trusted campus personnel are faculty and academic advisors (with Black or African American students trusting campus leadership the least).

Finally, since the survey was conducted both before and during the pandemic, the authors attempted to measure how college and university responses to the COVID crisis impacted the students’ college trust. And here they found that White and Latinx students had more trust, and Black students less, after COVID forced campuses to shut down. They speculate that this might correlate to the fact that students of color and low socio-economic status students in general may well lack the technical infrastructure in their homes that would allow them to complete their work in a successful fashion. A survey of nearly 30,000 undergraduates conducted by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium found that students with disabilities, as well, were less likely to feel supported by their university during the pandemic.

When the survey examined how college trust related to a sense of belonging, it found that there was a linear relationship between college trust and one’s sense of belonging. As with other findings, this is not necessarily surprising in that trust is “a prerequisite to feeling comfortable and a part of the community, and feeling valued by the community.” This is as true in the wider world as it is in college, as we are continually witnessing.

The Change in Student Perspective Over the Fall 2020 Semester

An additional set of surveys to consider is that sponsored by New America and Third Way who partnered with Global Strategy Group on a series of national polls tracking if the COVID-19 crisis is shifting students’ perceptions of higher education. The survey in question examines the fall 2020 semester, the period between August and December 2020. They surveyed 1,008 college students nationwide, including oversamples of 90 students who are the parent or guardian of a child or the caregiver to a family member, 165 Black students, 112 Latinx students, as well as 207 high school seniors. Their greatest concerns expressed by those polled were a fear that friends or family will catch the COVID-19 virus (86% expressed this worry, a figure which increased over that time period), and being able to pay non-education related bills (71% expressed concerns). Some results should be highly troubling to college and university administrators, in that 51% of college students (and 63% of Black students) agreed with the statement: “the way my institution handled the pandemic this past semester made me trust its leadership less.” Half (50%) of college students agreed with the statement that “my institution only cares about the money it can get from me,” including 55% among Latinx students and 59% among Black students. A whopping 93% agreed that “rising student loan debt is a major problem,” and 57% of college students are worried that “higher education is not worth the cost to students anymore,” up from 49% in August. 


The tables below indicate some of the persistent concerns:









Above charts from Audrey Williams June, “How the Pandemic Put More Strain on    Students Last Fall,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 26, 2021


A Survey of Gen Z Teens

Finally, and confirming some of the results of the other polls, a new national survey of U.S. teens by the ECMC Group indicates that their likelihood of pursuing a four-year degree has decreased substantially over the past eight pandemic months. Only slightly more than half of Gen Z teens are now considering a four-year college degree and a little more than half believe they can achieve professional success with a post-secondary education of three years or less. Those figures are, beyond a doubt, connected to the two most pressing concerns on the minds of Gen Z teens: graduating with a high amount of debt (expressed by 50% of respondents), and being unable to find a job after graduation (44%). Here, as well, the COVID pandemic is likely to impact the future of low-income earners more substantially than that of wealthier individuals. Nearly 30% of respondents felt that the pandemic had made it less likely that they would go on to attend a 4-year college, and nearly a quarter felt that they wouldn’t pursue any education beyond high school. Both of these findings point the way to an even more divided society given the well-examined, and highly negative, consequences faced by those who lack of a bachelor’s degree, a topic studied at length by Anne Case and Angus Deaton in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, 2020). They found that a four-year degree has become “the key marker of social status.” Their meticulous study found that those without a degree are seeing increases in their levels of pain, ill health, and serious mental distress, as well as declines in their ability to work and socialize. All this, they argued, has led to a marked increase in what they call “deaths of despair” (e.g., suicide, drug overdoses, etc.) almost exclusively among those without a bachelor’s degree. Such trends, and the worrisome data presented in these surveys, need to be addressed as soon as possible.


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