A new BestColleges survey shows that over 8 in 10 students experiencing educational disruptions from COVID-19 are experiencing increased stress.

Students Stressed Out Due to Coronavirus, New Survey Finds


  • Seventy-eight percent of households with high school or college students report educational disruptions from COVID-19.
  • Over 8 in 10 students experiencing these disruptions report increased stress.
  • Almost 44% of students worry about their ability to enroll or stay enrolled in college.
  • This same worry is shared disproportionately among respondents identifying as black, Hispanic, or other.

The college experience changed suddenly and drastically as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Campuses began closing, unemployment surged, and social distancing became the norm — all within a few short weeks.

According to a new survey by BestColleges, 78% of households with a high school or college student have experienced disruptions stemming from COVID-19. A worrisome side effect of these disruptions has been the impact on student mental health. Among students impacted by COVID-19, an overwhelming majority (81%) somewhat or strongly agreed they were experiencing increased stress.

The survey, conducted through YouGov, consisted of 745 individuals who reported some level of educational impact from COVID-19. Of these individuals, 290 reported educational disruption as a student and 516 reported that someone in their household has had their education disrupted. The results suggest that the global pandemic and subsequent containment measures are exacerbating pre-existing concerns about student mental health in college.

No matter the exact cause, 44% of respondents experiencing some form of educational disruption worry that it will negatively impact students' ability to enroll or stay enrolled in college.

Campus closures and the shift to online learning may be one variable that has increased student anxiety. Almost 35% of respondents reported this shift was having a negative impact on students. At the same time, the BestColleges survey suggests the majority (69%) of students experiencing disruptions believe schools are providing enough support throughout the transition process.

Much of the stress reported by survey respondents could relate to other negative effects stemming from the coronavirus outbreak. Among other variables, housing, travel, jobs, and income may have been impacted by the pandemic at either the student or household level.

No matter the exact cause, 44% of respondents experiencing some form of educational disruption worry that it will negatively impact their or the students in their household's ability to enroll or stay enrolled in college. The survey also indicates that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting underserved populations' ability to enroll or stay enrolled in college — a fact that should alarm policymakers and college administrators.

Coronavirus and the Student Mental Health Crisis

In households with a high school or college student experiencing an educational disruption from COVID-19, 71% of survey respondents reported increased stress resulting from this disruption. This includes 81% of current adult students who said they are feeling increased stress and 66% who said a student in their household is increasingly stressed.

The fact that so many students are stressed out may come as no surprise, but it adds to ongoing concerns about student mental health. A 2018 study by Harvard Medical School found that as many as 1 in 4 college students had been diagnosed or treated for a mental health disorder the prior year.

Adding to these concerns, many students may not seek help when they need it. A survey from the American Psychological Association shows that, regardless of whether they had sought treatment, 52% of students on college campuses reported feelings of hopelessness and 39% of students reported being severely depressed.

The Psychiatric Times explains that college students are uniquely vulnerable to mental health challenges, and suicide rates continue to climb; it's the second leading cause of death among college-aged adults.

“Colleges will need to be sensitive and proactive about reaching vulnerable students who need additional support in terms of technology, housing, or even healthcare.”

—Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

In the midst of the public health crisis and self-quarantine measures, many students are seeking telemental health, but not all insurance plans cover online therapy and existing college counseling centers — if they are even permitted to provide these services by state licensing boards — may be ill-equipped to provide them.

The emotional impact of self-quarantine is beginning to take a toll. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that instructors — themselves under serious pressure — are increasingly worried about the mental health of students, particularly among more vulnerable populations like Native Americans who are harder hit by campus closures and the subsequent loss of campus resources.

Indeed, the BestColleges COVID-19 survey indicates the pandemic will have a disproportionately negative effect on historically underserved populations. For example, only around 36% of white respondents said COVID-19 would impact their ability to enroll or re-enroll in college compared to 50% of respondents who identified as Hispanic, 59% of those identifying as black, and 60% of those in other racial categories.

"The potential for a more negative impact on some minorities and underserved populations is daunting," said Melissa Venable, Ph.D., an online education advisor for BestColleges. "Colleges will need to be sensitive and proactive about reaching vulnerable students who need additional support in terms of technology, housing, or even healthcare."

Venable continued: "The loss of campus-based services, as well as in many cases on-campus jobs, further complicates the lives of these students as the outbreak and campus closures become extended."

Compounding the preexisting college mental health crisis, COVID-19 could severely complicate school efforts to provide support to students experiencing increased mental distress and financial difficulties that impact their enrollment status. Now more than ever, it's important for colleges to keep students on track by encouraging connection, building community, and setting achievable educational milestones.

Supporting College Students Online

While colleges face a variety of constraints due to campus closures, one variable they can control and continue to improve is the delivery of online education, including support and resources for students and instructors.

In the BestColleges survey, 69% of respondents agreed that schools are providing enough to support them during the transition from on-campus to online learning. But as the duration of this crisis grows, schools will need to become better at anticipating student needs.

The 2020 Online Education Trends Report from BestColleges provides some additional insights that can help schools focus their energy where it's needed. The report includes feedback from 1,500 online students and 398 school administrators currently involved in managing online programs.

Their feedback came just ahead of the new year, before the onset of COVID-19 and the rapid move from campus-based to online learning at schools across the country. Based on their comments and suggestions, we identified three specific strategies, outlined below, to support student success in online programs.

Focus on Building Community

In our school administrator survey, roughly 32% of respondents said that they also teach online. They reported challenges, however, when it came to creating meaningful connections in their courses.

"Developing an online community can be difficult, but is essential," Venable noted. "This is particularly true now, as students used to the vibrant community of campus-based programs are experiencing increased stress and isolation."

The Biggest Challenges Faced by Online Instructors
Developing a learning community at a distance 33%
Adapting my teaching style from on-campus to online classrooms 14%
Maintaining and updating my online course materials 10%

Responses: 126

The experience is difficult not just for students but also instructors who are not used to educating large numbers of students in a virtual classroom. "Additional skills, many of which help to build online communities, are required and take time to develop," Venable said. "Expecting a quick and seamless transition is unrealistic — for faculty as well as students."

Implementing instructional strategies that help students connect with each other, and with their professors, can foster a sense of belonging. Venable suggests strategies such as facilitating small group discussions and group projects. Online instructors can also actively participate in discussion forums and provide tailored, timely feedback.

“Developing an online community can be difficult, but is essential . . . This is particularly true now, as students used to the vibrant community of campus-based programs are experiencing increased stress and isolation.”

—Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

Starting class with "get to know you" activities (e.g., personal introductions and icebreakers), having an approachable and informal conversational style, and demonstrating a sense of humor are also effective in building relationships.

On top of learning new instructional tools, instructors may find themselves teaching students who face any number of new life challenges, such as lost employment, a lack of internet access, housing difficulties, or even personal losses stemming from COVID-19.

While instructors can't be expected to support every student need, they can engage students in active learning that will help build connections and maintain focused attention during class time. Encouraging connections between students, such as through a buddy check-in system, may also help combat the sense of isolation and loneliness.

Plan for Live, Online Class Meetings

Almost half (49%) of the online students in the online education trends survey shared that they participated in synchronous, or live scheduled, components in their online classes. This was the case before COVID-19. Right now, these live video sessions are even more heavily relied upon at many institutions as a first step to remote education and online class delivery.

Live class meetings using web conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and MS Teams, are a quick way to make the transition. They may also be an effective short-term solution to provide continuity in spring semester classes.

But, as Venable explains, "Holding three-hour live lectures online is not an ideal use of time or technology for the long haul, especially as issues related to privacy and bandwidth have emerged."

So long as live sessions are the norm, however, they should be put to good use. Venable recommends several strategies for cultivating personal connections and building community through synchronous classes.

"For example, use this time to focus on students’ needs through a Q&A hour where you can explain course changes and expectations," Venable said. "You can also facilitate active learning activities like case studies and problem-solving exercises rather than lecturing."

Help Students Stay on Track

Staying on track may be the biggest concern for students right now. High school students have felt the impact of COVID-19 on college planning — from canceled SAT tests to canceled campus visits — and college students are wondering how campus shutdowns will affect graduation, grades, and future academic terms.

In our online education trends survey, we asked online program graduates about their biggest roadblocks to graduation. It may be no surprise that the biggest one is financial (35%), followed by managing unexpected circumstances and life events (20%) and staying on track with classes to graduate on time (17%).

Instructors and administrators are making changes to policies and procedures to account for [COVID-19], including streamlining class requirements, giving partial tuition refunds, and offering pass/fail grading options.

"These were already roadblocks for college students," Venable noted. "But now, with coronavirus and the switch to online learning, these roadblocks may seem even more insurmountable."

While there will be ongoing challenges, instructors and administrators are making changes to policies and procedures to account for this, including streamlining class requirements, giving partial tuition refunds, and offering pass/fail grading options.

According to Venable, there is certainly an increasing awareness that school work may not be as high a priority as students lose not only their campus community and connections, but in some cases also their jobs, housing, and health benefits.

Long-Term Implications

As campus closures are extended, online learning may continue beyond the spring academic term. While it may be too early to tell whether COVID-19 disruptions will impact higher education enrollment, colleges need to proactively address the challenges of student anxiety and isolation, particularly among underserved populations.

Fortunately, colleges can benefit from existing research about online education in areas such as community building, the use of live online sessions, and helping students stay on track in their online courses.

Venable shared a few additional resources that have been helpful in her work. Learning designers at Northwestern provide practical ideas for enhancing interaction in live sessions, and DePaul’s Center for Teaching and Learning shares an approach for exploring alternatives to live sessions.

Venable also stressed the need, especially now, to recognize and address the mental health needs of students. Resources curated by the American College Health Association connect instructors and administrators with a variety of organizations and materials.


Methodology

BestColleges commissioned YouGov Plc to conduct the survey. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. The total sample size was 745 adults who themselves or someone in their family unit are experiencing a disruption in their education due to the coronavirus.

Fieldwork was undertaken March 25, 2020. The survey was carried out online and meets rigorous quality standards. It employed a non-probability-based sample using both quotas upfront during collection and then a weighting scheme on the back end designed and proven to provide nationally representative results.

BestColleges’ annual Online Education Trends Report Data was collected through two separate surveys. BestColleges directly contacted schools offering online courses as reported by IPEDS to gather feedback from administrators. This year the sample size was 398 participants. A second survey commissioned through Pollfish gathered feedback provided by 1,500 current, prospective, and former online students. This data collection was conducted October 2019 through December 2019.