For millions of young Americans, the college experience is a formative part of transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. In some schools, as many as 99% to 100% of students live on campus or in university housing, serving as the first opportunity some students have to live on their own, separate from their parents or families. Even if they commute to school from home or live alone off campus, college students look for an experience where they get to meet new people and learn what it means to live autonomously and be independent.
Life in the time of COVID-19 has uprooted many people’s daily routines, and college is no exception. In 2020, many schools adopted a virtual model with online classes in place of the classroom, and 2021 will still be impacted by the pandemic with thousands of schools continuing to utilize online instruction for the spring semester.
So how are students navigating their expectations of the college experience during the COVID-19 pandemic? To find out, we surveyed over 800 people, including current college students and recent graduates, about what matters most to them and what they’re willing to sacrifice to get it. Read on as we explore how students define the college experience; the risks they’re willing to take regarding COVID-19 to get that experience; and how they feel the pandemic has negatively impacted their education in 2020 and beyond.
What College Students Are Looking for
Almost unanimously, 90% of students agreed the college experience is important to them, but how they defined that experience existed on a sliding scale – ranging from making friends and networking to sorority parties and spring break trips.
The most common experience students were looking for in college, regardless of how close to home their school may be, was the opportunity to meet new people (86%) and make some friends (84%). In addition to the people they meet along the way, many students defined the college experience as learning to be independent (83%), having fun (71%), and expanding their worldview (71%). Another 68% of students said living on their own was a definitive part of going to college. More than half of students (53%) also identified partying as a fundamental element of the college experience.
Among recent graduates, we found 71% said the college experience had a positive impact on their career, followed by their personal life (64%) and overall happiness (61%). And while 55% of current students said a lacking college experience wouldn’t change their decision to enroll, 26% were unsure, and 20% said that it definitely would.
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped education at every level in 2020, and many of those changes may last for years to come. Half of students said attending college on campus is less appealing without the college experience they were expecting, 48% felt living on campus was less appealing, and another 48% said attending college at all proved less appealing.
Making Sacrifices for the College Experience
Despite their quest for the ideal college experience, many students admitted returning to campus meant risking both their own health and the health of those around them.
Half of students said returning to their campus would put their personal health at risk, followed by 45% who said it would put the health of peers and family at risk and another 42% who indicated it was a risk to the public health in general. Still, more than a third of students (36%) didn’t believe there were any health risks associated with returning to on-campus life.
In an effort to get off the internet and back into the classroom, 83% of college students said they would wear a mask if it meant they could attend class on campus. Similarly, 64% of students were willing to socially distance themselves on campus, 31% were willing to forgo seeing their family, and 27% of students said they would stay on campus in a bubble if needed. One in 4 college students said they were willing to risk being infected by COVID-19 to go back to in-person classes, and 12% were willing to chance infecting other students. Men were more willing than women to risk self-infection of COVID-19.
Wearing masks and socially distancing still wouldn’t make every aspect of the college experience safe for all students, which may mean students have to reset their expectations of what it will mean to get back on campus. Eighty-eight percent of students were willing to give up access to fraternity and sorority parties, followed by pulling all-nighters (75%), taking spring break trips (70%), drinking (67%), and partying (67%).
The Long-Term Impact of the Pandemic on Education
Nearly all of the college students surveyed believed the pandemic has interfered with their education, and nearly as many were understanding of the changes their schools made to adjust to COVID-19.
Combined, 97% of college students agreed the COVID-19 pandemic had interfered with their education on some level, including 36% who said the pandemic impacted it a great deal and 40% who felt the effects were moderate.
Despite recognizing the pandemic’s impacts on their schooling and college experience, 87% of students also said this interference was necessary. Seventy-six percent of students expressed disappointment by the changes to their education caused by the pandemic, and 61% of students were angry about the interference. Yet, more than a third of students (37%) were relieved by the changes to their college experience caused by the pandemic.
We found 28% of graduation ceremonies were fully remote among recent grads, while 17% were in person with reduced attendance, and 14% had reduced attendance with remote aspects. Thirteen percent of students said their graduation ceremonies were completely canceled due to COVID-19, while more than 1 in 10 were postponed. Just 12% of recent grads said their graduations occurred in person unaffected at all by the pandemic.
Making the Most of College During COVID-19
2020 radically altered the college experience by forcing students out of the classroom and into virtual learning environments and eliminating in-person interactions between students and teachers. For many students, these are fundamental elements that define what it means to go to college in the first place and had some students debating whether enrolling in classes makes sense for them right now. Despite the extent to which their college experiences had been interrupted because of COVID-19, a majority of students recognized these changes needed to be made, and some were even grateful for them.
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Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 304 current students and 508 recent college graduates. Among our respondents, 440 were male, 368 were female, three did not identify as male or female, and one did not report on their gender.
In order to help ensure accurate responses, all respondents were required to identify and correctly respond to a decoyed attention-check question. In some cases, questions and answers have been paraphrased or rephrased for clarity or brevity. These data rely on self-reporting, and potential issues with self-reported data include telescoping, selective memory, and attribution errors.
Fair Use Statement
Are your readers contemplating the college education dilemma during the pandemic? Share the results of this study for any noncommercial use with the inclusion of a link back to this page as credit to our team for their work creating these insights and illustrations.