May 25, 2020

Taking the Pulse of Students During COVID-19

Advising Leaders

By Elliot Felix and Tatiana Garcia

What experiences do students value and how well are their colleges and universities providing them as a result of COVID-19? To take the pulse of undergraduate students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the US, brightspot surveyed a generally representative sample of 500 students nationally in late April using our standard Student Experience Snapshot along with questions about their experience in this unique moment.

We set out to answer questions that are on the minds of so many institutions as they try to understand how their students are feeling and decide if / when / how to reopen their campuses in the fall. We did so knowing that at any college or university, there is no single “student experience” but rather a range of them, depending on characteristics like age, first-generation status, and their race – and the interplay of these and many others. The questions we’ll answer are:

  • Will students come back in the fall?
  • How satisfied are students with their experience?
  • What’s working and what isn’t about their experience?
  • How do they think their institutions are handling things?
  • Will there be a backlash against online courses and student services?
  • Do they still think their education is worth the cost?

(The Chronicle of Higher Education, n = 675 as of 5/21/2020)

In this whitepaper we’ll share our findings so colleges and universities can make informed decisions, identify considerations as they redesign their institutions in response to the pandemic, and provide recommendations to act on the findings that complement our whitepaper on higher education after COVID-19 peaks and the resources we compiled to help institutions navigate.

The whitepaper is structured in three parts: first we provide an overview answering the six questions above. Then for survey enthusiasts who want more detail, we provide a detailed analysis of each section of the survey. Then for people who really geek out on this stuff, we provide appendices on methodology and demographics. (A summary presentation of our findings and recommendations is also available here.)

Taken together, these findings reveal students who are generally satisfied, but have been severely challenged by COVID-19 and are questioning the value of their education while lacking the community that campuses foster.

About the Student Experience Snapshot

The Snapshot is a short online survey that students complete in an average of 5 minutes to rate their experience with Academics, Community and Culture, Student Services, Technology, and Facilities on a five-point scale of very poor, poor, average, good, and very good. These experience ratings are coupled with two overall measures: the degree of satisfaction with personal growth on a five-point scale and their overall satisfaction with their college or university on a seven-point scale. These standard questions were complemented with specific questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected students, how they think their institutions are handling the crisis, their plans for the fall, and their take on the value of their education. These new questions took an average of 5 additional minutes to complete.

The dimensions of a student’s experience evaluated in our Snapshot Survey

Students’ Plans, Perceptions of Value, and Satisfaction

To cut to the chase, this table summarizes students’ plans for the fall, their perceptions of the value of their education, and their overall satisfaction, according to attributes like first-gen status or race. If you want to learn the answers to the questions above and what’s behind these numbers, read on…

% Students who plan to return in the Fall % Students that think their education is worth the cost? % of Students who are satisfied overall
OVERALL AVERAGE 81% 39% 75%
First-Generation Students 79% 41% 75%
Low-Income Students 83% 44% 73%
Part-Time Students 79% 41% 68%
Students 25 or Older 67% 47% 72%
Students With Disabilities 83% 28% 82%
Asian or Asian American Students 87% 50% 74%
Black or African American Students 85% 43% 63%
Latino or Hispanic Students 80% 40% 76%
Two or More Races Students 69% 27% 60%
White Students 82% 40% 77%

 

A. Will students come back in the fall? While there has been great concern that students may not come back in the fall, 81% are planning to return, consistent with typical retention.

Normal retention at a four-year college is 81% and our survey found precisely 81% of students planning to return in the fall, with 20% of those who are staying in school planning to study online, an increase from the 15% studying online today in the latest NCES numbers. Returning students had many positive experiences in common: being challenged in my academics, gaining confidence in myself, developing a relationship with my professors, belonging to a group I identify with, and having a place that feels my own.

While the overall findings may allay some concerns, there are some important differences by group. Only 67% of adult learners plan to return in the fall compared to 88% of those who are 18 to 24 years-old. A much higher percentage of Black or African American students plan to study online in comparison to students overall (33% vs. 20% overall) while only 3% of Asian or Asian American students plan to return online – and Asian or Asian American students also found the transition to online courses more challenging. Lack of community appears to be a big driver for students planning to transfer; they are the only group that prioritizes community over academics and have less positive experiences with community.

B. How satisfied are students with their experience? Students are generally satisfied, but this varies by group and isn’t a great predictor of the big question: will they come back in the fall?

Overall, 75% students were “completely” or “mostly” or “somewhat” satisfied – a slight decrease from the 78% in our 2018 Snapshot. There is little variation in satisfaction for first-generation students, low-income students, students 25 or older, but students with disabilities are more satisfied, and part-time students are less satisfied. With only 63% satisfied, Black or African American students are less satisfied than other groups.

Students’ overall satisfaction is not a good indicator of their plans for the fall; for instance, 9% of those not planning to return are “mostly or completely satisfied” whereas 7% of those who are planning to return in the fall are “mostly or completely satisfied.” 71% of students are also satisfied with their personal growth, but within that category, they are least satisfied with their ability to work on a team and their opportunities to solve real-world problems. These two areas have been identified as critical skills by many studies, such as the AAC&U’s “Future of Work” research.

C. What’s working and what isn’t about their experience? While academic programs are paramount and students are happy with them, they are not happy with community and campus culture.

Among the experience categories, Community was ranked the second-highest priority but had the least positive ratings (65% positive). The aspects not working well are belonging to a group (67% positive rating), participating in student activities (60%), connecting with mentors (56%), and playing leadership roles (56%). The importance of these relationships aligns with other research, such as the Gallup-Purdue Index finding that students who had a mentor in college were 1.9x more likely to be engaged at work after graduation.

Students are also unhappy with their institution’s fostering of community and belonging during the crisis (53% “satisfied” or “very satisfied”) and rate separation from their friends during the pandemic as their biggest challenge (57% “extremely challenging” or “very challenging”). Campus Culture turns out to be a good indicator of a student’s experience more generally as it has strong correlations with Non-Academic Services (Pearson’s R = 0.81), Academic Services (r = 0.74), Online Platforms (r = 0.71), Academic Experience (r = 0.70), Technology (r = 0.66), and Personal Growth (r = 0.61).

D. How do students think their institutions are handling things? Separations from friends and pivoting to online courses have been the biggest challenges for students, but they give institutions high marks for their communication.

The challenges of COVID-19 have been felt unevenly though. Students 18-24 and full-time students have found the transition more challenging than adult learners and those studying part-time. Black or African American students are the most satisfied with shifting support services online (65% vs. 54% overall). Separation from friends was less of an issue for students 25 or older (24% found it “extremely challenging” vs. 34% for students overall) but older students found the loss of campus meal plan more challenging 29% compared to 11% overall.

Students’ perceptions of how their colleges and universities responded are related to the challenges they face. Most students are satisfied with communication during the pandemic but few are satisfied with their institutions creating a sense of belonging and providing financial support. Low-income students are not as satisfied with communication, consistent with reporting on the challenges COVID-19 has amplified for struggling students. Black or African American students are more satisfied than average on the issue of belonging (65% vs. 51% overall) but Latino or Hispanic students are less satisfied (42% vs. 51% overall). Part-time students and those over 25 are also more satisfied with handling the crisis. 

E. Will there be a backlash against online courses and online student services? The pivot to learning and accessing student services online has not altered students’ plans to do so.

There has been much concern that the current “emergency remote teaching” could dissuade students from taking well-designed online courses in the future. These concerns may be overblown: when asked how this shift has affected their intent to learn online in the future, students are balanced – 31% of students say they are more likely to learn online in the future and 31% say they are less likely. Asian or Asian American students found the transition more challenging and say they are less likely to learn online in the future (20% vs. 31% of students overall). This shift appears more polarizing among low-income and first-generation students, with much larger “less likely” and “a lot less likely” responses due to fewer neutral ones.

The shift to accessing student services online has affected students’ intent to access services online in the future positively and negatively in equal measure – 28% of students say they are more likely to use online student services in the future and 28% say they are less likely. Overall, students have positive experiences with student services with degree planning (79% positive), orientation (72%), getting help developing academic skills (70%) and learning how to manage time and obligations (69%) as the most positive. There are important differences though; for instance, getting help with academic skills ranges from 94% positive for Asian or Asian American students to 90% for Black or African American students, 69% for White students, and 67% for Latino or Hispanic students.

Students’ Challenges Transitioning Online and Plans to Do So in the Future

% Students Who Found Online Course Shift Challenging* % Students A Lot More Likely or More Likely to Learn Online % of Students Who Plan to Return Online in the Fall
OVERALL AVERAGE 50% 31% 20%
First-Generation Students 50% 34% 13%
Low-Income Students 49% 35% 19%
Part-Time Students 33% 49% 36%
Students 25 or Older 41% 43% 42%
Students With Disabilities 42% 30% 11%
Asian or Asian American Students 59% 20% 4%
Black or African American Students 47% 18% 33%
Latino or Hispanic Students 48% 31% 15%
Two or More Races Students 60% 13% 22%
White Students 51% 35% 20%

*In this case “challenging” refers to those students who responded that the shift to online learning was “Very challenging” or “Extremely challenging”

F. Do students still think their education is worth the cost? The COVID-19 pandemic has nearly doubled students’ perception that their education is not worth the cost and this varies significantly by student segment.

We asked students to reflect on if they thought their education was worth the cost before COVID-19 and what they think since. The percentage of students saying it was “definitely not worth the cost” or “probably not worth the cost” nearly doubled from 15% before to 27% since. Those who think their education is still worth it since COVID-19, rate all statements about how their institution managed the transition significantly higher than those who don’t think it’s worth it. While the questions weren’t phrased identically, the Gallup-Purdue Index also provides useful context: in 2015, 50% of graduates felt their education was worth the cost in comparison to 39% in our survey.

Part-time students had the smallest percent increase in negative view (from 22% to 32%) and students with disabilities had the largest percent increase in negative view (from 15% to 30%). Perceptions of value declined more for students of color: Asian or Asian American students changed from 0% “definitely not” or “probably not” to 29%, Black or African American students went from 8% to 22%, and Latino or Hispanic students went from 11% to 29% whereas White students went from 18% to 26%. Interestingly, those students who think their education is worth the cost say they are more likely to learn online and access student services online in the future.

Conclusion and Recommendations

We hope our findings empower colleges and universities to make informed decisions as they prepare for a new academic year with COVID-19 still present. As students begin their next semester, our findings reveal that currently, students are generally satisfied, have found some aspects of the COVID-19 transition challenging, and miss the sense of community that campuses fostered, and ultimately many are questioning the value of their education. We offer four recommendations for acting on these insights. 

First, understand that there is no single “student experience” at your college or university but rather a range of them, and then combine strategies that work for all students with those tailored to certain segments. For example, all students in our survey want better experiences learning how to work on a team and more opportunities to solve real-world problems, but part-time and older students have rated the challenges from COVID-19 less severe than their full-time and 24 or younger counterparts. So, colleges and universities should segment their student body, assess their student experience, map their future student journey, and move beyond a one-size-fits all approach. (Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk is a great primer on this idea.)

brightspot’s Student Experience Canvas

Second, as colleges and universities decide whether and how to reopen campuses while facing financial challenges that will lead to structural changes, they should maximize the value of the campus using our findings. Institutions should address the biggest gaps from our survey: enabling students to have a sense of belonging to a group, providing a place that feels their own, facilitating participating in groups/clubs and activities, helping them feel supported by staff and faculty, and building a sense of school spirit. Academic programs must help students improve their abilities to work in teams, to work on long-term projects, to solve real-world problems, and connect with mentors in the process. One way to do this is by creating living/learning communities like University of Waterloo’s Velocity that combines a residence hall with an incubator and makerspace. Strategic use of the campus can help with retention and recruitment: in our last Snapshot, we found a relatively strong correlation (Pearson’s r = 0.58) between how students rate their campus facilities and their likelihood to recommend their college or university – and even higher correlation for historically underserved students. 

Correlations between student’s ratings of facilities with their sense of personal growth and their likelihood to recommend their college or university

Third, colleges and universities should focus on the aspects of student experience that are working well for students who plan to return in the fall and think their education is worth the cost. Returning students feel they are: being challenged in my academics, gaining confidence in myself, developing a relationship with my professors, belonging to a group I identify with, having a place that feels my own, having a sense of school spirit, and planning for and completing my degree. Students who think their education is worth it: talk to their advisors, get financial aid advice, have a say, explore career options, use health and wellness services, develop relationships with professors, get tech support, explore emerging technologies, and feel included in their class discussions and project. These aspects of student experience also align well with the “high-impact practices” identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) as well as active-learning practices which can cut failure rates in half.

Freeman et al, “Active learning increases student performance in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014
Active learning classroom at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

Fourth, institutions should prepare for the convergence of on-campus and online worlds  – classes, extracurricular activities, student services, and events will all be a hybrid. In parallel, they must build community online. On-campus and online were already coming together before COVID-19; for instance, two-thirds of fully online students are enrolled within 50 miles of home and universities are creating micro-campuses for online students. Doing things well online takes intention and preparation. So, institutions should start now to plan for a hybrid fall and beyond; even if they reopen their campus, there will be students who are stuck abroad, immunocompromised, or in quarantine that need online access to courses and services, along with those that simply want the online format. Now is the time to invest in ways to foster community online to give students greater access and flexibility and give the institution greater resilience. Focus on the critical gaps we’ve uncovered such as belonging to a group, participating in student groups and activities, playing a leadership role in my community, connecting with a mentor, and having a say in the direction of the school.

University of Washington Othello Storefront Micro-campus (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Going forward, colleges and universities must focus on providing opportunities for students to equitably learn and grow, to belong to a community that supports and challenges them, and to make an impact while building the 21st Century skills they need – and understand the key role that campuses today play in the student experience.


 

Part II: Detailed Analysis for Survey Enthusiasts

In this section, we review findings about the students’ experiences at four-year colleges and universities in general and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We start with their overall satisfaction and then drill down into different aspects of experience such as academic programs, student services, and technology. We then move into what’s been challenging for students during the pandemic, how they feel their institutions are handling the crisis, and how things have changed for them as a result in terms of their fall plans, their sense of personal growth, and their perception of the value of their education relative to its cost.

  1. The Overall Student Experience

Overall, students are satisfied with their experience – and this varies significantly by a student’s background and their race. When we asked students “This current academic year, how satisfied are you in general with your college or university experience?” along a seven-point Likert scale, overall, students were about five times as likely to be satisfied (75%) as dissatisfied (15%), but only 18% were “completely satisfied.” Compared to students who were mostly or completely satisfied, those students who were mostly or completely dissatisfied rated the following significantly lower: feeling safe and secure on campus, new student orientation, belonging to a group, sense of school spirit, preparing for a career, exploring emerging technologies, and technology support. Students’ sense of Personal Growth and Campus Culture have the highest correlation with their overall satisfaction (Pearson’s R = 0.48 and 0.47 respectively).

There is little variation in satisfaction for first-generation students (75%), low-income (73%), students 25 or older (72%), but students with disabilities are more satisfied at 82% and part-time students are less satisfied at 68%. There are some notable differences by race as some students of color are somewhat less satisfied than white students: 77% of white students are completely, mostly, or somewhat satisfied in comparison to 76% for Latino or Hispanic students, 74% for Asian or Asian American students, and 63% for Black or African American students. It’s also worth noting that students who feel their university “understands their needs” are more than twice as likely to be satisfied with their overall experience.

  1. Dimensions of the Student Experience

Among the different dimensions of student experience, academic programs are students’ top priorities and 70% of students rate them “good” or “very good” but their community is the second highest priority and it received the lowest ratings. When we asked students which aspects of their experience are most important to them, Academic Programs are their highest priority, by a wide margin with 46%, and compared to the overall percentage, Black or African American students and students with disabilities give academic programs an even higher priority.

In terms of priority, community is significantly more important to continuing generation students (3.66 out of 5, where 1 = highest) than it is to first-gen students (4.00 out of 5), and more important to full-time students (3.67) than to part-time students (4.14), and more important to students 18-24 years old (3.59) compared to those Students 25 or older (4.29). Student Services are more important to low-income students (3.15) than it is to other students (3.57). Technology as an area is also more important to some students; part-time students (3.72) give it a higher priority than full-time students (4.12). Many of these aspects are interdependent; there is a 0.78 correlation between students’ ratings of Academic Services and Non-Academic Services, a 0.73 correlation between students’ ratings of Academic Experience and Community, and a 0.69 correlation between students’ ratings Academic Services and Personal Growth.

There are also interesting differences when it comes to how satisfied students are with their institutions’ performance regarding Technology. Low-income students rate their experience with Technology significantly lower (3.84 out of 5) than students who are not low-income (4.03) and students 25 or older rate their experience with Technology significantly more positively (4.13) than students who are 18-24 years old (3.95). 

While Campus Culture is neither the students’ highest priority nor the best or worst aspects of students’ experiences, it has the highest correlations with other aspects of students’ experiences. Campus Culture includes the following aspects of experience: feeling safe and secure on campus, knowing where or how to get help, feeling supported by staff, feeling supported by faculty, being part of a diverse environment, having a sense of school spirit, and having a say in the direction of the school. Campus Culture has strong correlations with the following other categories: Non-Academic Services (Pearson’s R = 0.81), Academic Services (R = 0.74), Online Platforms (R = 0.71), Academic Experience (R = 0.70), Technology (R = 0.66), and Personal Growth (R = 0.61).


  1. Students’ Academic Experience 

The academic experience is paramount for students, and 70% rate their institutions’ as “good” or “very good” and the potential impact of shift to learning online has varied significantly by student segment. Among their academic experiences, only 49% of students are satisfied with support for research during the crisis. 78% of students are satisfied with how they are challenged academically and 71% of students feel positively “engaged in their coursework” but only 56% rate the experience “connecting with a mentor for guidance” as positive. There are few significant differences in academic experiences by student segment; Black or African American students rate “feeling inspired by my professors” significantly more positively (mean of 4.30) than Latino or Hispanic students (mean of 3.78) and first-generation students rate “working on long-term projects” significantly more positively (4.08) than continuing generation students (3.84).

In a recent EDUCAUSE poll about plans for the fall, 82% of institutions say they are preparing for a hybrid online and face-to-face courses, 42% will be fully-online for the fall-term, about 33% starting online and planning to flip to face-to-face if conditions improve, or vice versa, and 20% will be back to business as usual. As they plan ahead, institutions should note that transitioning to online coursework is among students’ top challenges but the shift hasn’t influenced their likelihood to learn online one way or the other – 31% of students say they are more likely to learn online in the future and 31% say they are less likely – but vary by student segment. Part-time students seem more receptive to learning online in the future, with 49% saying they are “more likely” or “a lot more likely” to do compared to the 31% who say so among all students. The subject of online learning appears more polarizing among first generation and low-income students; in both cases there were fewer neutral responses (“as likely as before”) and the highest percentages saying they are “less likely” and “a lot less likely.” A greater percentage of Asian or Asian American students found the transition to online courses challenging (38% vs. overall response of 24%), perhaps not surprising that they also reported being less likely to learn online in the future, with 20% vs. 31% of students overall.

  1. Student Views on Support Services 

Students have relatively positive views of the services to support them such as orientation, advising, tutoring, library services, and student health services – and while the shift to accessing these services online has been somewhat challenging, it hasn’t influenced their likelihood to get help online one way or the other. When asked whether the shift to online service delivery made them more or less likely to access services online in the future, 28% of students were more likely, 44% are about the same, and 28% are less likely. These views are relatively consistent across races as well as student attributes, with some notable exceptions: Asian or Asian American students are about half as likely to say they will access services online (14% “more likely” or “a lot more likely”) compared to 28% of students overall. Conversely, part-time students and students 25 or older are more likely to say they’ll access services online (39% and 37%, respectively) compared to 28% of students overall.

Students have positive experiences with students services overall with degree planning (79% positive), orientation (72%), getting help developing academic skills (70%) and learning how to manage time and obligations (69%) as the most positive, and paying bills (60%), getting financial advice (63%), participating in community service (63%), and participating in honors programs (65%) as the least positive. Within these academic and non-academic student services, there are some notable differences by student segment. In terms of rating their experience, low-income students and first-gen students have a less positive experience paying bills. Getting help with academic skills also varied, 70% students overall rated their experience positively in comparison to 64% of students with disabilities, 94% of Asian or Asian American students, 90% of Black or African American students, 69% of White students, 67% of Latino or Hispanic students, and 67% of students with two or more races. In terms of importance, low-income students give Student Services a higher priority (3.15 out of 5) than students who are not low-income students (3.57 out of 5).

  1. Students’ Biggest Challenge in Dealing with COVID-19

Students’ biggest challenges overall have been their separation from friends and changes to class schedule and online course format but these challenges aren’t felt evenly across student populations. In many cases, by leaving campus, the most vulnerable and underserved groups may have lost their support circle or group of peers who understand them while simultaneously introducing financial stress and changes to move coursework and student support services online.

Students with disabilities and low-income students found separation from friends more challenging, with 43% and 45% respectively finding it “extremely challenging” in comparison to 34% for students overall. Separation from friends was less of an issue for students 25 or older (24% found it “extremely challenging” vs. 34% for students overall) but older students found the loss of campus meal plan more challenging 29% compared to 11% overall. Low-income students found the “immediate financial burden” and “loss of campus meal plan more challenging than students who are not low-income. Notably, part-time students found a number of aspects less challenging than full-time students; including getting help like tutoring and advising online (2.92 vs 3.22 out of 5), on-site classes moving online (3.07 vs 3.60 out of 5), and changes to class schedule (3.11 vs 3.42 out of 5). The challenges were also not felt evenly by race. Asian or Asian American students found moving classes online more challenging (38% extremely challenging vs. 24% overall) and loss of campus housing more challenging (29% vs. 13% overall). Black or African American students found the immediate financial burden more challenging (27% vs. 22% overall). For further detail, refer to charts 5.2 and 5.3 in Appendix C.

  1. How Colleges and Universities are Handling the Crisis 

Students have somewhat positive views on how their colleges and universities have handled the crisis, with communications and shifting courses online as the most positive and providing financial support and a sense of belonging as the least positive. Providing student services online, supporting research projects, and understanding students’ needs fall in the middle. These views vary based on students’ race and background. Black or African American students are most satisfied with shifting support services online (65% vs. 54% on overall) and with their institution fostering a sense of belonging (65% vs. 51% overall). Latino or Hispanic students are less satisfied with their institution fostering a sense of belonging (42% vs. 51% overall).

Those students reporting two or more races are much less satisfied with how support services were shifted online, with 31% satisfied versus 54% overall for all students. Students with disabilities are more satisfied with their college or university’s communications throughout the crisis, 67% in comparison to 57% overall, while low-income students were less satisfied with communications, with only 44% satisfied. Part-time students are more satisfied with the transition than students overall, particularly in terms of shifting courses online, shifting student services online, and feeling like they belong. Students 25 or older are significantly more satisfied with the transition in every aspect but communications (which had a negligible difference). There is also a strong relationship between students perception of handling the crisis and their perception of the value of their education, explained in finding # 9. For further detail, refer to charts 6.2 and .3 in Appendix C.

  1. What are Students’ Plans for the Fall?

As students are planning for the fall, about a fifth are not planning to return to the same institution and with large differences according to students’ race and background. About 11% of those we surveyed are graduating. Of those remaining who are not graduating and could return, 65% plan to continue at their institution on-campus, 16% plan to continue at their institution online, 8% plan to take a year or semester off, 4% plan to end their studies, 2% transfer to another four-year institution, 1% plan to transfer to a two-year college, and 4% plan to do something else. These are consistent with an average of 20% attrition typical for four-year institutions.

What is not consistent, however, is how this plays out by student race and other attributes. Students 18-to-24 years old students are more likely to return in the fall than those 25 or older (86% vs 67%). First-generation students are more likely to return in the fall than continuing generation students (68% vs 73%) and about half as likely than continuing generation students to say they’ll study online (10% vs. 19%). Asian or Asian American American students are most likely to return to their institution, with 87% saying they plan return versus 81% overall.

Black or African American students and Latino or Hispanic students are more likely to end their studies: 7% for Black or African American students, 6% for Latino or Hispanic students, 4% for white students, and 0% for Asian or Asian American students. At 28%, Black or African American students plan to study online at almost twice the overall percentage of 16%. However, as shown earlier, Black or African American students saw the shift to emergency remote teaching as decreasing their likelihood to learn online in the future. Lack of community appears to be a big driver for students planning to transfer; they are the only group that prioritizes community over academics and have less positive experiences with aspects of community than other groups.

Students’ overall satisfaction is not a good predictor of their plans for the fall; for instance, 9% of those not returning in the fall are “mostly or completely satisfied” whereas 7% of those returning in the fall are “mostly or completely satisfied.” Instead, institutions should look at the aspects that students planning to return rated significantly higher than those who do not plan to return: being challenged in my academics, gaining confidence in myself, developing a relationship with my professors, belonging to a group I identify with, having a place that feels my own, having a sense of school spirit, and planning for and completing my degree. 

  1. Students’ Sense of their Personal Growth in the Last Year

The average satisfaction for all Personal Growth questions was 71%, showing that students are mostly satisfied. Students were least satisfied with their personal development in teamwork skills and real-world problem solving skills. 77% of students report a positive experience with “expanding their comfort zone,” 78% with “being challenged academically,” 71% with “preparing for their career,” 68% ‘working well on a team,” 61% “working on real-world problems.” Overall, the percentage of students satisfied with teamwork increased 11% since our fall 2018 survey but in 2018 and 2020 first-generation students’ sense of working well on a team was lower than average. 

Students’ sense of personal growth varies by race and other attributes. Our findings show part-time students are less satisfied with every aspect of their personal growth, with the biggest gaps in “preparing for my future career” (3.67 part-time vs 3.88 full-time out of 5) and “gaining confidence in myself” (3.62 part-time vs 3.97 full-time). Low-income students also report lower personal growth than students who are not low income in “being challenged in my academics” (low-income 3.73 vs 3.95 not low-income) and” expanding my comfort zone” (low income 3.67 vs 4.05 not low-income).

  1. Students’ Views on Whether Their Education is Worth the Cost

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on students’ views on the value of their education – the number of students who think it’s not worth the cost has doubled and this varies significantly by student segment. We asked students to reflect on if they thought their education was worth the cost before COVID-19 and what they think since. The percentage of students saying it was “definitely not worth the cost” or “probably not worth the cost” nearly doubled from 15% before to 27% since. These differences vary by race and student attributes. Part-time students had the smallest percent increase in negative view (from 22% to 32%) and students with disabilities had the largest percent increase in negative view (from 15% to 30%).

Perceptions of value worsened more for students of color: Asian or Asian American students changed from no students thinking their education was “definitely not” or “probably not” worth the cost to 29%, Black or African American students went from 8% to 22% not worth it, and Latino or Hispanic students went from 11% to 29% not worth it whereas White students went from 18% to 26%. Interestingly, those students who think their education is worth the cost say they are more likely to learn online and access student services online in the future.

If you think of those who think their education is definitely or probably worth the cost as one cohort of students and those who think it is definitely or probably not worth the cost as another, then some significant differences emerge. Those who don’t think their education is worth it rate “separation from friends”, “on-site classes moving online”, and “impact on class schedule” as more challenging than those who think it’s worth it. Those who think their education is still worth it since COVID-19, rate all statements about how their institution managed the transition significantly higher than those who don’t – and the difference is especially large for “making me feel like I belong to a community” and “providing financial support.”

Beyond the challenges of COVID-19, those with opposing opinions on value, rate several aspects of their experience differently, with those valuing their education more rating their experience with following significantly more positively: talking to my advisor about my academic or career goals, getting financial aid advice, having a say in the direction of the school, exploring internship and career options, accessing health and wellness services, developing a relationship with my professors, getting technology support, exploring emerging technologies, and feeling included in in classroom discussions, activities, and projects.

 


 

Part III: Appendices For Even More Detail 

Appendix A: Notes on Methodology

The data in this whitepaper are from brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot, an online student survey designed to take the pulse of students annually. The standard Snapshot includes 51 questions grouped where students rate their experience on a five-point Likert scale of Very Poor, Poor, Average, Good, Very Good. These questions are grouped according to ten dimensions of student experience: Personal Growth, Academic Experience, Community, Campus Culture, Non-Academic Services, Academic Services, Technology, Online Platforms, Facilities, and their Personal Growth. Students force-rank these categories in order of importance to them. Students are also about their overall satisfaction on a nine-point Likert scale (Completely satisfied, Mostly satisfied, Somewhat satisfied, Neither satisfied or dissatisfied, Somewhat dissatisfied, Mostly dissatisfied, Completely dissatisfied)

To understand more about students’ experience and needs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we complemented these aspects of student experience with questions about what they found most challenging about COVID-19, how they think their institutions are handling the crisis, their likelihood to study online in the future, their likelihood to access student services online in the future, their plans for the fall, and their take on the value of their education. We also removed our typical facilities questions since students currently do not have access to them.

The data were analyzed on three levels: first in aggregate to determine overall averages, second comparing different students by race as well as attributes like first-gen or low-income status, and third finding correlations between experiences and outcome. Where appropriate, differences between sub-groups were tested using ANOVA. The applied threshold for reporting significant differences was the generally accepted p=0.05. 

brightspot worked with Qualtrics to collect valid response data in April 20 to April 26, 2020 from 502 students currently pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the United States with the criteria that the responses approximate national demographics in terms of gender, enrollments by geographic region, race, institution type, and key attributes including first-gen status, low-income status, students with disabilities, part-time students, and veteran students – see table below in Appendix B for a demographic comparison between our respondents and students nationally.

The average completion time for the survey was 10 minutes and responses less than 3 minutes were excluded. An initial analysis showed that while the sample was reasonably representative across most important attributes such as race, institution type, and region, the sample included more older students (25 or older) than are represented in the overall student population. Therefore, we weighted the sample to reflect the correct and larger proportion of students that are 18-24 years older and in doing so also more closely matched national demographics for low-income students, first-generation students, and distributions by race.

Where available, we used nationally-recognized definitions for demographic attributes for segmenting student types and analyzing the survey. Races were defined in accordance with NCES table 306.10 and responses for all students were included in averages and all analyses. However, groups with less than 10 respondents were excluded visually from charts.

The designation for students with disabilities included the following prompt inclusive of physical and mental differences in abilities: “(e.g., physical, cognitive, sensory, psychological)” based on NCCCD definitions. There is no consensus definition of first-gen student (i.e., must parents complete or just attend college? In the U.S., or abroad?) – for instance, see NASPA’s Center for First-Generation Student Success’s excellent discussion of the issue. So, in our survey we stated it as follows: “First person in your family to go to College (‘First-Generation Student’)” and compared this to the NCES report by Cataldi et al, applied to four-year schools. Low-income students were defined as those below the federal poverty line based on the household income and number of people in the household, using the US Department of Education Office of Postsecondary Education’s formula.

Appendix B: Comparison of Survey Respondents to National Students Demographics

Demographics Summary Count % Survey Respondents % Students Nationally Source:
Total 502 100.0%
Female 305 60.8% 53.6% NCES Table 306.10 (Less NCHA #s)
Gender Variant / Non – Conforming 4 0.8% 1.1% NCHA, 2018
Male 189 37.6% 43.8% NCES Table 306.10 (Less NCHA #s)
Prefer not to say 1 0.2% N/A
Transgender Female 1 0.2% 0.9% NCHA, 2018
Transgender Male 2 0.4% 0.7% Ibid.
Institution Type
Public 330 65.9% 79.5% NCES UGrad Enrollment, Figure 4
Private Non-profit 100 20.0% 15.7% Ibid.
For-profit 19 3.8% 4.9% Ibid.
N/A 52 10.4%
Race
American Indian or Alaska Native 5 1.10% 1.0% NCES Table 306.10
Asian or Asian American 34 6.9% 8.0% Ibid.
Black or African American 51 10.2% 14.0% Ibid.
Hispanic 92 18.3% 18.0% Ibid.
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander 2 0.4% 0.3% Ibid.
Prefer not to say 10 2.1% N/A N/A
Two or more races 15 3.0% 0.8% Ibid.
White  291 58.1% 57.0% Ibid.
Student Attributes
First-generation 138 27.6% 17.8% NCES Cataldi et al, 2018 (Figure 3)
Part-time student 95 19.0% 25.0% NCES UGrad Enrollment, Figure 3
Student with children 27 5.4% 27.6% IWPR, 2019 (Include 2yr schools)
Transfer student 49 9.8% 10.5% NISTS review of IPEDS data
Students with disabilities 46 9.1% 19.0% NCCSD, 2017
Veteran student 14 2.9% 5.0% Ithaka S+R, 2019
Student athletes 52 10.4% 2.50% NCAA, 2019
International students 9 1.9% 4.92% NCES Table 306.10 (“Non-Res Alien”)
Low-income 102 20.30% 20.0% Pew Research Center, 2015
Not low-income 399 79.70% 80.0% Ibid.
Age
18 – 24 382 76.3% 76.1% NCES Table 303.50
25 or older 119 23.7% 23.9% Ibid.
Region
New England (CT, ME, MA, NH, RI, VT) 28 5.6% 5.0% NCES Table 304.10
Mideast (DE, DC, MD, NJ, NY, PA) 103 20.5% 15.0% Ibid.
Great Lakes (IL, IN, MI, OH, WI) 64 12.8% 14.0% Ibid.
Plains (IA, KS, MN, MO, NE, ND, SD) 26 5.3% 8.0% Ibid.
Southeast (AL, AR, FL, GA, KY, LA, MS, NC, SC, TN, VA, WV) 140 28.0% 23.0% Ibid.
Southwest (AZ, NM, OK, TX) 54 10.8% 13.0% Ibid.
Rocky Mt (CO, ID, MT, UT, WY) 17 3.5% 5.0% Ibid.
Far West (AK, CA, HI, NV, OR, WA) 68 13.5% 18.0% Ibid.

 

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