COVID-19 has altered the college experience for students who returned to campus this term, leading to more stress and exacerbating students' mental health.

The Altered Reality of College Life During COVID-19


  • On-campus and online college students face extra challenges during the pandemic.
  • Surveys show a rise in financial and academic concerns, anxiety, and depression.
  • For first-year students, the loss of campus life is another hardship.

Any other fall term at the University of Missouri would start with incoming first-year students parading through the Columns — six Greek columns that stand alone, remnants from a fire that burned through campus in 1892.

Many of the historical changes that impact college campuses leave their mark. But aside from plexiglass barriers and testing stations, the legacy of COVID-19 on campus will be mostly invisible — remembered less for what happened and more for what didn't.

Collegiate traditions like sorority bid day and tailgating have been curtailed due to COVID-19.

For Sophia Chelist, a first-year student at Mizzou, fall 2020 has not delivered the college experience she anticipated. A member of Greek life, Chelist says collegiate traditions like sorority bid day and tailgating have been curtailed. Chelist even thought tailgating might get you arrested.

While partying during college football games may not be illegal or lead to arrest, as Chelist worried, it could get you kicked out of school. Breaking COVID-19 health and safety rules has led to weighty punishments like suspension or even expulsion, in some cases without any tuition refund. Student organizations, like the sorority Chelist belongs to, have also seen sanctions.

For many students, social restrictions fundamentally change the value proposition of residential college. Whether students are back on campus or logging in from home this semester, the pandemic has heightened long-simmering issues affecting higher education. Many of these issues center on the college affordability crisis, but the education outcomes of online courses, widening digital gap, and worsening mental health of young people also figure into the fall 2020 experience.

Online Education Is Flexible but Allows Students to Check Out

Online education is the new norm for many learners. At this point, most college students have been exposed to some version of distance learning, and many have even grown accustomed to it. Some students say the flexibility and extra time to reflect — for example, being able to post a thought-out response in a thread rather than stammering something out after being called on in class — have helped them succeed.

Others, including Chelist, say self-paced courses add to their stress. Many first-year college students have not yet developed the organizational skills or self-confidence needed to take the lead in their own education. While she's gotten used to learning online, Chelist doesn't feel the online experience provides the same educational outcomes.

Many first-year college students have not yet developed the organizational skills or self-confidence needed to take the lead in their own education, which can make distance learning difficult.

Some of her disappointment with online courses comes down to less teacher interaction. While she would raise her hand or stop by the instructor's podium in an in-person class, Chelist finds email and online office hours less usable.

Instead of pursuing answers to her questions, she pushes through on her own. "I always interact with my teachers," Chelist said, "and I have not made one relationship with any of my professors."

What's worse is that some of the classes she's phoning in this term are crucial for her major. Simply being handed an assignment and a due date aren't equipping her with the context and support to really connect with what she's supposed to be learning.

COVID-19 Widens the Digital Divide

For many low-income students, the technology requirements of online education — including good internet access and an up-to-date computer — make it even harder to succeed in college in 2020.

Some colleges anticipated that sending students home could push vulnerable learners even further back. As a preemptive measure, institutions with the resources to do so rushed to provide laptops and hot spots to students before campuses shuttered in March.

But for college students without internet at home, or those who lack a laptop and were unable to get a loaner from their college, completing courses is more than an academic challenge — it's an unfair IT challenge. Listening in on Zoom lectures, completing online homework, and taking virtually proctored exams all become exponentially harder without reliable technology. Some students have dropped courses as a result.

The plight of low-income students is one of the most persuasive arguments for reopening campuses. Without equal technological footing, students at an already high risk of dropping out face mounting challenges with fewer tools at their disposal.

For College Students, It's a Mental Health Crisis

The majority of college students are not at high risk for COVID-19. Even as viral infections have spiked on some campuses, the hospitalization rate remains relatively low for people aged 18-29. Instead, the risk COVID-19 poses to college students is mostly related to transmission. Students can serve as vectors for the virus, within and beyond campus. While COVID-19 may not necessarily hit students hard, it could hit their families.

Another serious threat is the worsening mental health many college students have reported since the start of the pandemic. Several surveys conducted over the spring and summer show that the preexisting mental health crisis among college students has been exacerbated by the threat of COVID-19.

According to the CDC, 1 in 4 people aged 18-24 seriously considered suicide in June.

Existing stressors, such as struggling to afford college and succeed academically, take on new dimensions against the backdrop of a health crisis and an economic recession. According to one report, nearly 60% of college students surveyed said they were worried about their mental health. Another from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that a staggering 1 in 4 people aged 18-24 seriously contemplated suicide in June.

For students like Sophia Chelist, the isolation imposed by new campus rules and a totally online course schedule increases stress and boredom in equal measure. As colleges draft plans for spring 2021, caring for students' mental health — and not just their physical health — should be a top priority.

Fortunately, college administrators seem to understand the importance of this topic. In a recent American Council on Education survey of college presidents, 53% listed student mental health as a major concern.


Feature Image: Sean Rayford / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images