Whether on campus or at home, college students have embarked on an unusual academic year during the pandemic. From on-campus outbreaks to spending entire semesters without seeing a single professor or classmate in person, students are finding that their pandemic learning experiences have changed not just their current academic year, but their plans for the future, as well.

When most students were sent home from their campuses in late March of 2020, many held onto a faint gleam of hope that they would be able to return the following academic year. As the U.S. quickly realized the worst was yet to come, however, universities had to decide between a fully virtual format, in-person learning or a hybrid of the two. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, out of about 3000 colleges/universities, 34% were primarily online while another 21% were fully online in fall of 2020.

Rather than spend a year of their college careers at home, some students made the decision to take a semester or year off in hopes of returning to campus with some sense of normalcy. Approximately 40% of incoming freshmen considered taking a gap year and in many institutions, deferment numbers were higher than ever before—20% of incoming freshmen at Harvard University deferred their enrollment, which is three times the average deferment rate.

Universities began to release their decisions on the 2020-2021 academic year from late July to as little as two weeks prior to the semester, leaving students at a loss for what the near future would look like. 

Originally planning to return to Princeton with a hybrid method, sophomore Madeleine Quackenbush recalls having only five days to make a decision whether to take a gap semester: “Would you really want to pay that much to do [virtual schooling] for half of your college career?” she said. “They gave us a reduced rate for tuition, but I didn’t want to pay that amount to stay in my parent’s house.”

Other universities have also reduced their tuition rate in response to the growing concerns over the value of online education, even though many are reporting a drastic loss in revenue. Purdue University reduced their tuition rate for students participating in a fully online experience, which saved full-time undergraduate out-of-state and international students up to $4,500.

Regardless, semesters off or sudden changes in plans meant prolonging some students’ graduation plans, particularly affecting students who struggle with student debt and living expenses, and sometimes even delaying professional or graduate school opportunities. 

“I was supposed to be studying abroad in Seoul, South Korea for the entire semester, but I had to readjust everything. Now, I might have to change my three-year graduation plan to four,” Giovanna Salazar, a junior at Purdue University, said.

On Campus During the Pandemic

Students who did choose to enroll remained wary about the feasibility of their semesters.

“I felt dreadful because I just knew it was going to be more difficult than any other semester because of everything going on,” Cayla Lane, junior at the University of Central Oklahoma, said.

Other students were concerned about whether those on campus would actually follow guidelines, making the decision more difficult for those concerned about the safety of their family and themselves. One report found that 46% of students felt anxious about returning physically to campus for the fall semester.

Universities created their own guidelines based on CDC recommendations to reduce COVID-19 transmission on campus, including the use of masks and the upkeep of good hygiene practices (frequent hand washing, disinfecting classrooms, etc). Some universities started specific initiatives to keep students safe, such as Purdue’s “Protect Purdue” and Virginia Commonwealth University’s “One VCU: Responsible Together.”

“I was actually pretty nervous. I know they had the Protect Purdue initiative, but how is this really going to go? How can you really trust 40,000 students on campus?” Salazar said. 

Others assumed that the spread of COVID-19 would result in another shutdown. 

“I decided to stay home because I figured [the Purdue administration] would have sent us home in the middle of the semester because of a serious outbreak,” Joshua Henderson, Purdue University senior, said.

Many universities required students to take a COVID-19 test and provide negative results before returning to campus for both semesters, but policies varied, often including randomized testing or weekly testing for students and/or faculty and staff; some schools didn’t do either. For example, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did not require students to take a COVID-19 test before returning to campus. The campus moved to remote learning only nine days after the campus reopened for the fall semester.

Unlike the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which early on required students to test twice a week, other universities struggled to communicate quickly about cases on campus; universities created databases to give students and faculty access information at any time—but they weren’t always helpful.

“[Campus Blueprint] is not very accurate. At the beginning of school, it was only updated once a week. By the time dorms are informed about confirmed COVID cases, it sometimes comes a week or more after the student tested positive,” Cielle Waters-Umfleet, junior at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, said of her campus’ online database.

Once students returned to campus in the fall semester, a large number resumed what would be their typical college experience: bars, clubs and parties—activities that, even if participated in by only a small percentage of the student body, would prove disastrous as students disregarded social distancing protocols and mask mandates. Before the fall semester started, Ohio State University suspended 228 students for going to large gatherings.

“What did you think was going to happen when people got back, especially after spending months inside the house and being away from their friends?” Henderson said. 

As the end of the semester neared, students disregarded the safety protocols more often, which has led to turmoil on campuses such as University of Michigan, which implemented a stay-at-home order (with exception) because of an influx of positive COVID-19 cases. 

“I remember in the first week of classes, I was like ‘Okay, everyone’s wearing their masks and doing the right thing,’ but that’s definitely died down,” Salazar said. 

Nonetheless, masks mandates and social distancing guidelines are in place across college campuses and have been enforced in a wide variety of ways—some of which have drawn criticism from the student body. 

“The Michigan Ambassadors Program pairs students with campus police to go around and reprimand students who are blatantly breaching COVID-19 policies,” Waters-Umfleet said. “This was just seen as a way of turning students into cops and relying too heavily on law enforcement to keep campus safe.”

The Pandemic College-life Balance

Navigating college life while in a global pandemic has also added more stress on students as they handle expected responsibilities (internships, on/off-campus employment, coursework, family life, etc.) while quarantine-fatigue continues to impact them, mentally and physically.

“Trying to maintain my personal life on top of school work and clubs—it’s not fun. It can wear you down and can be exhausting at times,” Henderson admitted. “Econometrics isn’t the first thing on my mind when I’m trying to help disabled people in my household.”

Furthermore, as the pandemic has shifted students’ financial situations, some have resorted to working full-time or part-time to keep their family afloat. For students whose families’ livelihoods are on the line daily, college assignments can seem like a secondary priority—but one that remains burdensome. While many schools adopted a pass-fail grade option for the 2020 spring semester, some universities returned to their normal grading policies in the fall semester while the students’ challenges largely remained the same.

“It can get overwhelming with all of the assignments. I feel like some professors are still piling on work just because we’re at home,” Lane said. 

And while depression and anxiety levels in college students tend to be higher than that of the general population anyway, numbers have risen substantially since the beginning of the pandemic. One report shows that about 85% of surveyed students report high to moderate levels of distress since the pandemic began, and another report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about one-quarter of students surveyed had “seriously considered suicide” in the prior 30 days. While some schools have added additional resources to their pre-existing mental health resources for students, demand often outpaces supply for counseling and other services. 

Even amidst very real struggles, however, some students have found silver linings—like being able to engage in opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them. For example, as a student from Indiana, I have been able to participate in internships based in Toledo, Philadelphia and Chicago as well as a networking opportunity based in New York City all while going to school in Indiana.

“I have the opportunity to work with companies that aren’t necessarily in my immediate area. It’s easier to manage and do everything virtually because I can handle multiple responsibilities at once,” Fatou Drammeh, junior in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University, said.

Drammeh also found that Howard’s large alumni network was a great way to keep up professional connections even amidst the pandemic.

“Howard has done their best to keep us connected with opportunities. Our network [of alumni] is really, really strong. Even if we never returned to campus, we’d still have that really strong power network because our alumni are everywhere,” Drammeh said.

Quackenbush has taken advantage of her gap semester by engaging in professional development opportunities, like serving as a college advisor for a matriculate program. 

“I think the most valuable thing that I am gaining from this is life experience. You can practice how to be an adult without all of the support from school,” she said.

Looking Ahead

With more than 535,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 100 student/faculty deaths across college campuses nationwide, the pandemic’s impact on university life remains all too real. As universities seek to create and execute plans to either maintain or improve the conditions of student life on campus, it’s unclear what vestiges will remain from COVID-19 policies for years to come, even with vaccinations on the rise. 

Some universities have discussed adapting to the online environment by increasing the number of online courses offered and reducing in-person instruction to implement more time for experiential learning. Even beyond the pandemic, students’ opinions on long-term virtual options are changing. 

“People say ‘Don’t go to an online university because that degree is worthless,’ but it might actually be better for some people,” Waters-Umfleet said. 

That is especially true among traditionally underserved populations. For example, women in higher education, who have been among the most affected by COVID-19, often have to choose between pursuing a higher education or taking care of their families, even though there are more women enrolled in undergraduate programs than men. Prior to COVID, in-person learning was still the preferred method of learning between men and women, with both genders simultaneously being equally interested in hybrid learning at about 30%; now, a preference for in-person learning has decreased among men and women at 10% and 20%, respectively. 

For other students, the difficulties of learning amidst the pandemic has reinforced the benefits of on-campus college experiences—from the social atmosphere to campus culture to university traditions.

“There’s not going to be much of a difference between two different university classes. You’re paying for that environment and that experience more than for the education,” Quackenbush said.

Universities are inching back toward the norm—Michigan State University included 400 in-person classes in the spring semester, in comparison to 40 in the fall—and yet students are still feeling the effects of pandemic learning mentally, socially, financially and academically. Students are struggling to “just be college students” as the pressures of the world around them grow increasingly great, and are coming to terms with the fact that the compounded national and global crises of 2020 and beyond will have an impact on the trajectory of their lives for years to come.

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