After a year of campus shutdowns, 82% of college students say COVID-19 disrupted or impacted their education, according to a new BestColleges survey.

Despite COVID-19's Impact on Mental Health, Students Want Colleges to Stay Closed


  • Over 80% of students say their education was disrupted by COVID-19, according to a new BestColleges.com survey.
  • Nine out of 10 college students think the educational shifts will impact them for life.
  • Half of students would have made different college choices if they'd known what lay ahead.

Campus closures due to COVID-19 are hitting college students hard socially, academically, and mentally. In a new BestColleges.com survey of 702 undergraduates nationwide, who were all learning remotely due to the pandemic, 90% said pandemic-related changes at their institution would impact their futures.

These findings mirror emerging data, which points to a learning and mental health crisis among students at all grade levels. In the BestColleges.com survey, more than 1 in 3 college students (35%) predicted that the impact COVID-19 had on their education would stay with them for life.

Students point to less interaction with peers (58%), a stronger reliance on technology (56%), less interaction with professors (51%), and difficulty learning online (50%) as the pandemic's biggest impacts on their educational experience. Losing the social side of college tops the list, and it's also what most students (42%) say they miss most about the traditional campus experience.

Over 40% of students said they were looking forward to making friends and meeting romantic partners at school. Of those who predicted the mental impact of remote learning would stick with them, more than three-fourths emphasized the loss of peer interaction.

Social isolation appears to drive COVID-19's mental health issues among college students. Pushed to remote learning last spring, students remain largely distanced from one another. Half of the students surveyed (50%) changed housing due to COVID-19, and just 13% have returned to totally in-person, on-campus learning.

Students are split on whether schools' COVID-19 learning models are providing them with a good learning experience. While more agree than disagree that their institution's current model offers a good experience (39% vs. 26%), 43% report feeling disappointed with the education they've received as a result of COVID-19-related changes.

Only 1 in 3 Students Says Campuses Should Be Open

Even as campus closures leave students mourning for a lost college experience, struggling with classes, and doubting their choice of school, 40% believe all college campuses should not be open for in-person instruction. Meanwhile, fewer than 1 in 3 students (31%) believe all campuses should be open.

The student groups suffering the most from campus closures are the least likely to say learning should be on campus right now. Forty percent of students overall say college campuses should not be open for in-person instruction; the share who disagree with reopening dips to 38% among students who predict no lasting mental effects from the closures but rises to 45% among students who anticipate lasting mental health impacts from school changes due to COVID-19.

Researchers say underrepresented students do better with more campus support, yet the survey found students of color are the most likely to agree with staying online. While students of color face a higher risk of learning loss during pandemic-related shutdowns, they are 11% more likely to believe campuses should not be open for in-person instruction.

Meanwhile, first-generation students are 14% more likely to agree that the current remote learning method provides a good learning experience. First-generation students are also 10% more likely to say they would have selected an entirely online program if they would have known how COVID-19 would change college.

Students Expect Long-Term Mental Health Impact From Remote Learning

Nearly a quarter of students surveyed (24%) said pandemic-related reasons would prevent them from completing their degrees. If the financial fallout of the pandemic wasn't enough to hamper education goals, the change in educational delivery could impact students in the long term.

Well over half of students (58%) reported interacting less with classmates and professors this year and relying more on technology (56%). Nearly half (46%) report feelings of burnout. The vast majority of students — 90% — say the changes will impact their future.

These impacts hit hardest among the 35% of students who predict lasting effects to their mental health due to their schools' COVID-19 changes. Students who said they would experience lasting mental effects were around 20% more likely to have been impacted by each of the top issues.

While Half of Students Would Have Altered Their Plans, Many Want Online Options to Stay

According to the survey, nearly half of students (49%) indicated that if they'd known how they would be learning this year, it would have influenced their decisions regarding college. One quarter said they would have taken a gap year (26%); another quarter said they would have chosen a less expensive institution (26%). Twenty-three percent said they would have chosen one in a different location, maybe closer to home.

First-generation, Black, and brown students were the most likely to say they would have chosen differently had they known about the coming pandemic-related changes. First-generation students and students of color were 25% and 19%, respectively, more likely to indicate that COVID-19's reverberations on education would have impacted their college choices. This figure jumps to 28% for Black students.

Nevertheless, students still want the option to take classes online. While the past year's college experience no doubt differs from what you see in brochures, students are more likely to agree than disagree that the current learning experience is of good quality.

Almost half (49%) of students surveyed said the option to attend classes online should remain in place, even after in-person learning resumes. Students also want to retain instructors' online office hours (44%) and the expanded tech and financial support (45%) that many institutions introduced during the pandemic.

A Quarter of Students Think Colleges Could Do More to Help

Nearly 1 in 4 college students (24%) do not think their school is doing enough to help students during the pandemic. Students who feel COVID-19 led them to regret their college choices are 14% less likely to be satisfied with their institution's safety precautions.

While 53% of students believe their school was doing enough in terms of health safety, less than half (42%) of survey respondents felt their school was meeting students' needs.

Top 10 Precautions Colleges Are Taking To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19

As reported by survey respondents

  • Remote instruction (62%)
  • Canceled social events (57%)
  • Socially distanced classrooms (51%)
  • Canceled or limited athletic programs (50%)
  • Closed dining halls and/or modified dining facilities (e.g., meal service, to-go food) (45%)
  • Quarantining in dorm rooms (40%)
  • A system for checking individual's own symptoms (40%)
  • On-campus testing prior to attending classes on campus in 2021 (38%)
  • No-guest policy (37%)
  • Regular communication with students on actions taken and/or an online dashboard with testing information and positive case counts (37%)

Students Divided Over COVID-19 Vaccination Mandates

Studies show that college students take COVID-19 precautions seriously. According to the survey, a little less than half (46%) of students agreed that colleges should make COVID-19 inoculation mandatory for students and staff. Twenty-eight percent were neutral on the subject, while one quarter disagreed with a schoolwide vaccination mandate.

While a growing share of Americans plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19, college-aged individuals are among the least likely to say they would get the vaccine.

In November, 55% of 18-to-29-year-olds said they would get the vaccine if it were available to them, according to Pew Research Center. The current student survey, conducted in February, also found that 55% of students would get the vaccine immediately. First-generation students were 9% less likely to agree they would get the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

Students who said their education has been impacted by the pandemic were 16% more likely to want to get the vaccine as soon as possible. These students said they've struggled to meet new people (74%), make friends (64%), and experience the independence and self-discovery (52%) that come with the traditional college experience.


Methodology

The survey was conducted from February 24 to March 3 of 2021. Student respondents were fielded by Lucid LLC. Survey participants included 702 college students nationwide that experienced remote learning over the past year. Respondents were 18-25 years of age, enrolled at a college or university, and pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree. The respondents for the survey were screened by various quality checks, including systems like Relevant ID, and are manually reviewed to ensure consistency and accuracy in the responses.


Feature Image: Alistair Berg / DigitalVision / Getty Images