COVID-19 has threatened students' college plans and altered the higher ed landscape. Now, new and returning students want mostly hybrid or online options.

Fat Camera / E+ / Getty Images

College Students Want Fall Term to Stay Online


  • College enrollment numbers for this fall remain highly volatile due to COVID-19.
  • College-bound students have changed their education plans and opinions of online learning.
  • Returning students prefer the hybrid model, whereas new students want to learn remotely.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on students' college plans but has also drastically altered their perspectives on online education.

SimpsonScarborough's recent nationwide survey of more than 1,800 college students found that nearly half of incoming freshmen are rethinking the college they'll attend — and whether to attend college at all this fall.

Most new and returning students want courses to stay online. According to the study, over 40% of returning college students would prefer to come back to campus for hybrid learning, or a mix of online and in-person classes. By contrast, incoming freshmen would rather stay home and take all of their fall classes remotely.

This spring, students at all levels experienced learning setbacks as the pandemic shuttered schools and forced classes online. Despite online education's initial bad rap, now less than 20% of college students want the upcoming fall term to take place entirely in person.

The new preference for online education reflects persistent health concerns but also suggests that students believe online learning is already sufficient — and growing stronger. Having learned from spring's crash course in online education, many colleges promise to offer an improved remote learning experience this coming term.

"Pandemic Melt" Quashes Many Students' Plans

Numerous U.S. colleges aim to offer a mix of online education and campus life this fall, and their contingency plans assume students will show up, whether that's to the classroom or on Zoom. But the annual summer melt, which has been amplified by COVID-19, is taking a toll on people's education plans, putting low-income students and students of color at highest risk.

Worried about contracting the virus and/or struggling financially due to the pandemic's economic fallout, 40% of college-bound students now say they most likely won't attend college this fall. Data reveals that students of color are more likely to be concerned about contracting COVID-19 on campus and are therefore less likely to plan on an in-person fall term.

Students of color are more likely to be concerned about contracting COVID-19 on campus and are therefore less likely to plan on an in-person fall term.

A summertime drop in enrollment numbers is normal. Every year, a large percentage of college-bound students fail to make it to the first day of class. This phenomenon, known as "summer melt," reduces colleges' incoming classes by up to 40%.

A disproportionately high number of these students are Black or brown, low-income, and/or first-generation. This year's "pandemic melt" has hit vulnerable students even harder.

Despite colleges' attempts to confront their racist histories by changing building names and removing racist statues, the racial education gap is poised to magnify because of the virus.

Most colleges were already far whiter than the states they served, but now the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and brown students could make campuses even less diverse.

Students Want Better Communication From Colleges

There are many unknowns regarding the 2020-21 academic year. Students don't fully trust their schools' safety plans or their peers' ability to follow them. And a lack of clear communication from colleges doesn't do much for students' shaky faith in higher education.

Nearly 40% of students are dissatisfied with their college’s communications about COVID-19.

A growing number of students claim that their colleges aren't effectively communicating with them about COVID-19. In an April survey, 20% of students gave their school's communications about the coronavirus a grade of "fair" or "poor." Three months later, this figure rose to 38%.

Students would like to hear more from their institutions, but schools aren't sure what to tell their students. These days, both colleges and students are hedging their fall-term decisions.

Universities aim to be as flexible as possible in order to maximize student enrollment numbers. Up until tuition deadlines, many colleges are allowing students to defer admission or take an academic leave.

A woman in a white button-down, collared shirt, a cream-colored blazer, and a light blue face mask sits alone on a couch in an academic building, typing on her laptop computer.

Fat Camera / E+ / Getty Images

When Will Colleges Reopen?

Ever since campuses closed, students and educators have agreed it's a necessity to reopen schools — safely. College derives a fair part of its value from the in-person element, which gives students the opportunity to learn together, hold discussions, and network.

Fearful of pushing away students who want campus life, many colleges put off announcing their fall plans. Meanwhile, a number of students are considering delaying college in the hopes of securing a traditional campus experience later on. Even with the fall term arriving, both colleges' and students' plans continue to evolve.

Over the spring and summer, the percentage of institutions committing to an in-person or hybrid fall term fell significantly. Currently, just 2.5% of the colleges tracked by The Chronicle of Higher Education intend to be fully in-person this fall. Although a quarter of colleges are still waiting to decide, another third say they will be either entirely or primarily online.

Just 2.5% of the colleges tracked by The Chronicle of Higher Education intend to be fully in-person this fall.

Nearly 40% of colleges plan to be at least partially in-person, with the majority following a hybrid model. Those plans are already being set in motion as colleges on the semester system complete their first week of classes.

While school leaders continue to reiterate the dangers of reopening, a number of colleges have already welcomed students back to campus after putting several safety measures in place, including COVID-19 testing, quarantine stipulations, and social conduct agreements.

According to SimpsonScarborough, most students agree to abide by their university's health guidelines but are unsure whether they can trust their peers to do the same.

A lack of confidence in both their peers and their colleges' plans could keep a record number of college-bound students from physically attending school this term. While the spring semester drew criticism of the quality of online education, now a minority of college students are interested in attending in-person classes.

The fall term is still just beginning, and further changes are likely to happen. But for the time being, online and hybrid models remain the safest options for keeping students healthy and on track to graduate — and students themselves seem to agree.