How Has COVID Affected College Students?

From declines in enrollment to increases in mental health challenges among students, the COVID-19 pandemic has left its mark on higher education.
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Data Summary

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    Over 1,300 colleges and universities canceled in-person classes or moved to online learning in spring 2020.[1]
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    By fall 2020, 44% of institutions were either fully or primarily online, 21% were hybrid, and only 27% used fully or primarily in-person instruction.Note Reference [1]
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    Fall enrollment dropped 2.6% from 2019 to 2020.[2]
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    Fall 2022 showed signs of recovery, with first-year enrollment up 4.3%. This is still well below pre-pandemic levels: Roughly 150,000 fewer first-years and 1.23 million total undergraduates were enrolled.[3]
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    In a 2021 survey, over 9 in 10 college students reported having experienced negative mental health symptoms due to COVID-19-related circumstances.[4]
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    In 2022, 25% of the students we surveyed said that balancing education with work, family, and household obligations was their biggest concern about the remote/online learning experience.[5]

In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.[6] All areas of everyday life were disrupted, and higher education was no exception. Schools shut down for long stretches of time, classes moved to online learning, and many institutions suffered sharp declines in enrollment numbers.

Three years later, some enrollment statistics show that higher education is recovering. However, COVID-19 continues to have lasting effects on other areas like students' mental health.

In this report, we cover the impact of COVID-19 on enrollment, online learning, academic performance, job and internship opportunities, and mental health through data and analysis.

Pandemic Effects on Students

Mental health challenges, stress, and isolation rose among college students in the years following the pandemic. Survey data shows how the pandemic impacted students' personal and academic lives.

According to a BestColleges survey from 2021, over 9 in 10 college students reported having experienced negative mental health impacts due to COVID-19-related circumstances. Some of these factors included struggles with isolation, anxiety, and lack of focus.

Almost half of respondents (48%) in the same survey said that mental health challenges have directly affected their education. These students said they slept less, ate worse, got less exercise, and experienced feelings of hopelessness.

A 2022 study found that students identified the transition to remote learning as a significant source of stress. This was not only due to social isolation necessitated by the pandemic. Learning from home also meant a loss of academic resources (e.g., internet access, advisors) as well as an increase in distractions (e.g., caring for siblings).[7]

In another BestColleges survey, 44% of households with a high school or college student responded that they had experienced some form of educational disruption due to COVID-19. They also responded that they were worried this would negatively impact their students' ability to enroll or continue enrollment in college.

Lost Job and Career Opportunities Due to COVID-19

For students, having to learn from home also meant having restricted access to on-campus opportunities. This included internship opportunities, on-campus jobs, and study-abroad opportunities.Note Reference [7] Note that this study only covers college students from universities in New York and New Jersey, epicenters of the pandemic in the U.S. in spring 2020.

  • According to a 2021 Frontiers in Psychology study, 33% of students surveyed reported feeling that their academic future was at significant risk due to the pandemic.[8]
  • Women students reported worse emotional wellbeing than men did.Note Reference [8]
  • Similarly, students of color reported significantly higher levels of stress and uncertainty in regard to their academic futures than their white counterparts.Note Reference [8]

School Closures and the Move to Online Learning

According to College Crisis Initiative data cited by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracked campus closures across the nation, over 1,300 colleges and universities canceled in-person classes or moved to online learning only by spring 2020.Note Reference [1]

By fall 2020, almost 3 in 4 college students (74%) took at least one class online.[9]

While the number of students taking online classes was already on the rise prior to the pandemic, the figure skyrocketed to 74% in 2020, totaling 5.4 million college students.Note Reference [9]

While students can save on housing and living expenses by learning online, the total cost of online education is not necessarily cheaper than in-person learning. A 2016 WCET survey of nearly 200 colleges found that 54% of colleges charged more for remote learning than in-person classes.[11]

In a 2022 survey conducted by BestColleges, 25% of all students, which included remote learners, online program graduates, and prospective online students, said balancing education with work, family, and household obligations was their biggest concern about the remote/online learning experience.

In contrast, 10% of all students claimed their biggest concern to be the perception of online education by employers. Another 16% deemed quality of instruction and academic support to be the biggest concern about the remote/online learning experience.

Students were not the only ones to find the transition difficult. Out of the 126 instructors surveyed, 33% said that the biggest challenge to moving online was developing a learning community at a distance.[12] They reported the second biggest challenge was adapting teaching styles from on campus to online (14%), and the third was maintaining and updating online course materials (10%).

Online Learning in Graduate Programs

We also see increases in the number of remote learners among graduate degree programs, including master's, doctorate, and professional programs (e.g., law, medicine, dentistry).

  • The number of graduate students taking at least one online course grew by 69% — from 1.3 to 2.2 million — between 2019 and 2020.[13]
  • The number of graduate students taking their classes fully online grew by 60% — from 1 to 1.6 million — between 2019 and 2020.Note Reference [13]

COVID-19 and Enrollment Decline

The COVID-19 pandemic amplified and quickened certain pre-existing trends in higher education. Enrollment numbers, for example, had already been steadily declining for the past few decades prior to the pandemic.

Despite more than 300 schools extending their admission deadlines as well as waiving SAT/ACT requirements in hopes of retaining numbers, undergraduate enrollment dropped considerably.Note Reference [1]

  • Fall enrollment dropped 2.6% from 2019-2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.Note Reference [2]
  • For reference, that's more than double the enrollment decline between 2018 and 2019, which was 0.7%.Note Reference [2]

Fall 2022 showed signs of recovery, however:

  • First-year enrollment was up 4.3% (97,000 students), including 6.1% at community colleges.Note Reference [3]
  • This is still well below pre-pandemic levels by roughly 150,000 first-years or 1.23 million total undergraduates.Note Reference [3]

Graduate enrollment experienced a 1.2% decrease (39,000 students) in fall 2022.Note Reference [3]

  • Fall graduate enrollment increased in 2020 (+3.0%) and 2021 (+2.4%).Note Reference [3]
  • In 2022, there was an overall decline in three of the five most popular graduate programs — business, health professions, and education.Note Reference [3]
  • Computer science graduate program enrollment, however, grew by 18.4% (30,000 students) in 2022.Note Reference [3]
  • Since fall 2017, graduate computer science programs have increased enrollment by 74.1% (82,000 students).Note Reference [3]

Enrollment by Institution Type

Not all schools experienced the same drops in enrollment. Ivy League schools actually experienced a jump in applications, especially early admission and early decision, after suspending their SAT/ACT testing requirements.Note Reference [1]

  • Public two-year schools experienced the greatest decline out of all institution types with a 10.5% drop in enrollment in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019.Note Reference [2]
  • Private, for-profit, four-year schools increased their enrollment by 5.7% from 2019. They also had the highest percentage of their courses online.Note Reference [2]
  • The year-over-year enrollment drop has slowed from 2019-2022.

Impact of COVID-19 on Enrollment by Major

Drops in enrollment broken down by major also reveals which fields of study were hit hardest during COVID-19. The table below tracks the growth and decline of some of the most popular majors.

Year-Over-Year Change in Undergraduate Enrollment by Major at Four-Year Institutions, Fall 2019-Fall 2022
Major 2019 2020 2021 2022
Computer & Information Sciences 5.8% 6.2% 3.9% 10.4%
Health Professions -0.4% 1.6% -2.1% -3.6%
Business -1.5% -0.9% -2% 1.2%
Psychology 4.2% 6.9% 3.8% 1.1%
Engineering -1.6% -2.4% -2.9% -1.3%
Journalism & Communications -1.3% -3.1% -8% -3%
Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research CenterNote Reference [2]

Impact of COVID-19 on Enrollment by Gender

When broken down by gender, men's enrollment initially fell faster than women's during the start of the pandemic. From fall 2021 onward, however, women's enrollment declined more than men's. (The National Student Clearinghouse does not report enrollment rates for trans or nonbinary students.)

  • From 2021-2022, men's undergraduate enrollment increased by 0.2% (15,000 students).Note Reference [2]
  • Women's enrollment, in contrast, continued to decrease by 1.5% (122,000 students).Note Reference [2]

When separated by institution type, the percentage gap was sometimes much bigger.

  • For public, two-year schools, men's enrollment increased by 2.6% (45,410 students), while women's decreased by 1.3% (32,038 students).Note Reference [2]
  • For private, nonprofit, four-year schools, men's enrollment increased by 0.2% (2,647 students), while women's decreased by 0.6% (8,804 students).Note Reference [2]

Colleges Drop Standardized Testing Requirements

An increasing number of higher education institutions, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, no longer require standardized test scores as part of their admissions processes. This trend had already started, but the pandemic may have accelerated it.

Number of Standardized Test-Takers, 2019-2022
2019 2.2 million 1.8 million 532,826
2020 1.2 million 1.7 million 467,277
2021 1.5 million 1.3 million 366,686
2022 1.7 million 1.3 million 341,574
Source: College Board[14], [15], [16], ACT Inc.[17] and ETS[18], [19]

Interestingly enough, prospective graduate student test-takers achieved all-time high test scores in 2022. This was true for the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), on which the average score was 501.5, the highest since a new version of the MCAT was released in 2015.

Both GMAT and GRE test-takers achieved their highest scores in 2021, which is the most recent test year data available for both exams.