How COVID-19 Is Affecting Students' College Decisions

September 01, 2020

College students are facing difficult decisions about the fall semester in a time of uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some universities are starting a remote semester. Others are opening their campuses with health and safety precautions in place, but can face the risk of having to close if there are outbreaks on campus.

As of Aug. 28, about 37% of nearly 3,000 colleges indicated they will have in-person classes or a hybrid of in-person and online classes for fall, according to data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Davidson College's College Crisis Initiative. About a third of colleges are having classes primarily or fully online.

Some students are raising questions about the value of online education and concerns about missing out on the “full experience” of campus life. Beyond concerns about their college experience, many students may be struggling financially because they or their family members have lost jobs due to the pandemic. (See box.)

Financial Impacts of the Pandemic on Students

“Basic needs insecurity” was an issue for many students in the early months of the pandemic, according to a survey by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice discussed in a conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in June.

People who have had difficulty meeting basic needs, such as for food, shelter and safety, are said to have experienced basic needs insecurity. The survey, conducted April 20 to May 15, asked about food insecurity over the prior 30 days, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness at the time of the survey.

Of the more than 38,000 students who responded:

  • 58% had difficulty meeting a basic need.
  • 71% of Black students had basic needs insecurity.
  • 52% of white students had basic needs insecurity.
  • About a third of employed students lost a job due to the pandemic.

The Costs of Postponing College

Some students view a gap year as the solution to these hardships and concerns. College enrollment is expected to be down sharply this year as incoming college students and students already enrolled in college consider this option, according to a Liberty Street Economics blog post by Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

About one in five college students who responded to a national survey in spring were unsure of plans to re-enroll or had decided not to go to college this fall. The survey was conducted during March and April by the American Council on Education and the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

But at a time when many students are considering delaying college, a four-year degree may be more important than before. Abel and Deitz estimated that the returns on college will increase relative to normal times, in large part because “opportunity costs” are declining. That is, students are giving up less to attend: Unemployment at the start of the pandemic hit young workers without college degrees particularly hard, and those who can’t find jobs aren’t giving up wages to go to school.

Abel and Deitz also pointed out that the increase in unemployment due to the pandemic did not affect college graduates as much as others, since many of the jobs that typically require a college degree can be done from home more easily than jobs that don’t.

A possible downside to delaying college involves the hidden cost of giving up a year’s worth of wages that could have been earned with a degree had one graduated earlier. And the missed experience creates an earnings “wedge” each year that damages entire lifetime earnings, Abel and Deitz wrote.

Pandemic Effects on College Experiences Get Personal

Students from 27 colleges and universities and four high schools served as interns at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis this summer. Five of them talked about their concerns and planning around the pandemic’s effects, from worries about building relationships with other students and professors to postponed opportunities.

Rejecting a “Gap” Semester Option

Ella Needler

Ella Needler, who is entering her senior year at Washington University in St. Louis, thought about taking a gap semester in the fall in the face of uncertainty about whether classes will switch to online only. She finds herself having less motivation in a virtual environment, she said.

“It’s just not what I’m used to,” she said. “And I noticed that last spring, also—I was not as focused, I was not as interested in the material, I wasn’t learning it as easily.”

However, she stopped considering a gap semester when she decided to apply to graduate school. She said looking forward to this has helped her deal with the prospect of missing out on a semester of the typical college experience, especially in-person discussions and intellectual debate.

“I’m coping with this, I think, differently than other people because I am planning to go into a graduate degree,” she said. “So, I’m like, ‘It’s OK. I still have more of this ahead of me.’”

Shifting Study Abroad Plans

Zena Pare | College student

Zena Pare

Over the past year and a half, Zena Pare had been planning on studying abroad this fall semester at an international business school in Paris. She had already applied and been accepted into the program by March, when the pandemic began to change college operations.

But over the summer her university announced the cancellation of its fall study abroad programs.

One of the deciding factors in choosing her school, Western Kentucky University, was its ample study abroad opportunities, said Zena, who studied abroad for parts of her freshman and sophomore years. She is starting her junior year, and she thought about taking the fall semester off and postponing her scholarship to use for a study abroad program in the future.

Zena ended up deciding against this idea, since it would “mess up a lot of timing and plans” relating to jobs and postgraduate scholarship applications.

“I just have a lot of alternative scenarios that I’m trying to think through,” she said.

For now, Zena has shifted her study abroad plans to the spring.

“I’m really hoping I can go in the spring and that that still works out because if not, I’m going to have to try and study abroad my senior year, which will be somewhat tricky to do,” because of her thesis and applications for jobs or graduate school, she said.

Missing Out on Freshman Rites of Passage

Sydnee Haymore

Sydnee Haymore

Incoming University of Dayton freshman Sydnee Haymore acknowledges that her college experience will be different from those of students in previous years.

She will be missing out on events that typically are rites of passage for new college students. For example, the Ohio school’s family weekend and student orientation have been shifted to online events.

“I don’t have that essence of going to campus, meeting some of my future new classmates and having that connection, spending the night or whatever,” she said. “It’s just me and my computer and Zoom.”

Sydnee also shared concerns about the social aspects of college life. If some of her classes are online, it will be more difficult to forge relationships with teachers and faculty who can help her “get from A to B” by connecting her with networking opportunities and job resources, she said.

Online Classes’ Shortcomings

Tyler Holt

Tyler Holt studies computer science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Almost all his classes for the fall semester have been moved online.

Most of the homework and assignments for his major are doable online, he said. But like Sydnee, he anticipates that establishing relationships with professors will be tricky.

“It is nice seeing your professor, because every professor does things a little bit different, even if you learn the same thing,” he said. “So it is kind of nice to just be in person with them and kind of feel out their tendencies.”

He added that at the start of school, students often need software, and it can be helpful to interact with professors during the process of getting everything set up.

Tyler is a junior this fall, and he expects his experience this semester to be different from his previous two years.

“I think it’s just going to be different,” he said. “It’s going to be kind of a change of pace for a lot of people, myself included. Hopefully in the spring we can start to get back to normal.”

Losing Time for Sports

Jamie Walling

Jamie Walling’s last volleyball season has been pushed back at least until spring.

Jamie is entering her senior year in the fall at Oakland University, a public university in southeast Michigan. Typically, the volleyball players at her school move in a month before classes start to prepare for the upcoming season, but this year they are moving in at the same time as other students, and fall sports competition has been postponed.

In addition to the students losing practice, the school loses a whole month of revenue that it would ordinarily get from student athletes living on campus, Jamie said.

Jamie said the situation in general is unfortunate for everyone attending college.

“I almost feel worse for the freshmen that are coming in, just because they don’t know what it’s like to be in college,” she said. “And then on top of it, they have to deal with this whole corona thing.”

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About the Author
Kaitlyn Hoevelmann
Kaitlyn Hoevelmann

Kaitlyn Hoevelmann was a Public Affairs writer at the St. Louis Fed.

Kaitlyn Hoevelmann
Kaitlyn Hoevelmann

Kaitlyn Hoevelmann was a Public Affairs writer at the St. Louis Fed.

This blog explains everyday economics, consumer topics and the Fed. It also spotlights the people and programs that make the St. Louis Fed central to America’s economy. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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