As COVID-19 transforms nearly every aspect of American life, higher education is no exception. Across the country, millions of college students have fled campuses for home – and experienced an abrupt end to their prior independence.
This transition entails significant challenges, from the drawbacks of online learning to the tensions that arise from too much family time. On the other hand, college students’ unplanned return may also have positive elements, enabling them to provide and receive support during a difficult time. Considering this mix of possible benefits and challenges, we wondered how college students and their parents have been holding up since campuses have closed.
To find out, we asked them, surveying 1,203 college students and 127 parents about sharing a space in the time of social distancing. How has being at home affected students’ academics, and are they enjoying themselves otherwise? From the parents’ perspective, has this unexpected presence been pleasant or problematic?
For answers to these questions and many more, check out our results below.
Of the students we surveyed, how many had headed home, and how long did they plan to stay? According to their responses, more than three-quarters were forced to leave in a hurry, and many could not predict how long they’d be under their parents’ roof.
Among students who lived on campus, 98% had moved home due to COVID-19 concerns. The few outliers may be international students, many of whom remain in on-campus housing because barriers to international travel prevent them from going home.
By contrast, students who lived off campus were far less likely to move back in with their parents. This could reflect their living circumstances: Off-campus accommodations are likely better suited to social distancing than dorms. On the other hand, many students feel trapped in their off-campus leases. Whereas some universities refunded residential fees due to campus closures, private landlords are unlikely to do the same.
On average, students expected to stay at their family’s home for four months, though 41% admitted they were unsure how long they’d be staying with their parents. Between abruptly coming home and the ongoing uncertainty, most students reported disruptions to their social lives and educational experiences. Similarly, a majority of those who went home had done so so suddenly that they left possessions behind. Many had missed opportunities to say goodbye to friends or romantic interests as well.
Feelings, Friction, and Fights
In response to their swift returns from school, students reported a wide range of emotions. Though most said their time at home was generally enjoyable, many reported frustrations with family and limitations of living under their parents’ roof.
While less than half of students at home viewed moving back as positive, 84% reported enjoying their time all the same. These data points indicate the complex and contrasting views of college students regarding their unexpected circumstances. Indeed, for every student who said the move had negatively affected their sense of life satisfaction, another said being home had a positive impact.
For many, however, the pandemic presented new mental health challenges: 47% felt additionally anxious, while 50% felt more stressed. Many colleges are taking these risks seriously, with some even offering virtual counseling services and support groups to their scattered student bodies.
Secrecy may be one reason for added stress: Nearly half of students said they were hiding an item or habit from their parents. Some of these secrets probably involve aspects of college life that parents may not permit. Two-thirds of students said living at home had hindered their alcohol or drug consumption, while 39% said being at home had hurt their sex life.
Naturally, disagreements arise in tight quarters: As a sense of cabin fever dawns, arguments are to be expected. More than half of students at home said they’d had disagreements with their parents. Perhaps these tensions reflected lost independence: 40% said their parents had imposed rules, while 47% reported parents setting other expectations for their behavior. Thankfully, conflict rarely bubbled over: Just 28% said serious quarrels with their parents had ensued.
Getting Closer: Activities at Home
Thanks to social distancing guidelines, many students and their families have had extra time on their hands. What have they done with this downtime, and how have shared activities affected their family bonds?
Two-thirds of students who came back home reported that the experience had strengthened their emotional ties to their family. Many commentators have recognized this silver lining to social distancing: In an era when multiple generations rarely spend quality time together, the pandemic has provided ample bonding opportunities.
In fact, those who engaged in “many activities” with family members were significantly more likely to enjoy their time together and feel closer to their loved ones. Of course, this correlation could capture a different causal relationship: Families with close ties already may be more likely to do activities together.
How were students most likely to pass the time with their family members? The most common activities were sharing dinner and watching TV and movies (quarantine certainly lends itself to family binge-watching sessions). Chores and exercise were also common pastimes, as were home improvement projects and playing games. And despite the viral influence of family TikTok challenges, they’re still relatively rare: Just 11% had filmed social media content featuring their families.
Socially Distant Studies
As college classes proceed digitally, students confront an array of new challenges related to online coursework. What are the biggest obstacles to their academic success at home? Similarly, we asked parents about the biggest challenges they faced in working remotely in the company of their family.
More than half of students at home said their parents distracted them from their studies, while 41% said their siblings distracted them from academic work. These distractions may be a relic of old habits: Previously, it might have seemed odd for parents not to engage with their children or for siblings not to interact with one another.
A related challenge is finding space in which to study or participate in online classes: Many students said their workspace was uncomfortable or inadequate. Similarly, competition for space and resources (such as computers) can be fierce in some families, as parents and kids all conduct their lives virtually. While some may benefit from building a schedule to help with sharing, the politics of that process could get heated in some households.
Overall, 51% of students felt their productivity had suffered during online studies, and similar percentages said their learning and focus had dipped. According to recent research, these feelings are shared by students across the world – and especially by those with learning disabilities or socioeconomic challenges.
Interestingly, parents were far less likely to report problems with work due to having their children at home. In fact, nearly 4 in 10 said having their kids home from college had improved their performance, focus, or productivity. This fact presents an interesting contrast with the experience of parents with younger children, many of whom are struggling to work while watching their children.
Parents Weigh In
When we asked parents about having their college-aged children back home, the vast majority said the experience was positive. That doesn’t mean, however, that their kids are perfect guests – or that they don’t demand certain sacrifices.
While 4 in 5 parents said having their college-aged kids back home had been positive, these unexpected circumstances could introduce real challenges. For example, a fifth of parents said they’d had an argument with their spouse or partner as a result of a child’s return.
These squabbles could revolve around setting boundaries: Parents may have differing opinions as to rules for these young adults. Thankfully, very few parents felt their love life had suffered. Just 9% said having their kid home had negatively impacted their romantic relationship, and 47% even said it had positively affected their bond.
Of course, plenty of returned students indulged in (and even exploited) their parents’ attention. For example, just half of parents said their children did their own laundry, while only 42% reported children who cooked for themselves. Moreover, 57% admitted their children were costing them money now that they were back home, while just 9% pitched in to the family finances.
There’s no doubt that being back home can be difficult: As our findings indicate, many college students find constant contact with family frustrating. Some of this irritation seems inevitable, no matter how much you love your quarantine companions. Additionally, these feelings can be exacerbated by other stressors, like the challenges of continuing studies online. When campuses do reopen, it’s likely the change will come as a relief to many current students.
But this narrative is incomplete: Many families are cherishing the chance to weather the COVID-19 crisis together, and most students are actually enjoying their time at home. Overall, our findings speak to the resilience of America’s college students, who have continued to pursue their goals despite a global pandemic.
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Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,203 college students and 127 parents of college students for a total count of 1,330 respondents. Among those respondents, 503 were either a student who had moved back home due to the COVID-19 pandemic or a parent whose child had done so. To ensure statistically significant samples, these respondents were selected from several thousands of respondents using survey quotas.
To help ensure respondents took our survey seriously, all respondents were required to identify and correctly answer an attention-check question. In some cases, questions and responses were rephrased for clarity or brevity. These data rely on self-reporting, and statistical testing was not performed on these findings. Potential issues with self-reported data include, but are not limited to, exaggeration, selective memory, and attribution errors on the part of respondents.
Fair Use Statement
Do you know a college student or family experiencing exactly what this project explores? Feel free to send them our work and share our findings with anyone else who might enjoy them. We only have two requests: First, please link back to this page when you share our results, allowing others to access the project easily. Second, please use our images and information only for noncommercial purposes.