Black student reading and wearing COVID mask.

A new Gallup poll of U.S. college students offers an insightful – and sobering – glimpse into how the pandemic is disrupting students’ plans to stay in college, learn online, and earn their degrees.

Students’ struggles to keep learning amid COVID-19 shed light on college enrollment decisions this fall and potentially next spring and fall, too. The latest figures show that U.S. undergraduate enrollment dropped by 4.4% this fall, with freshmen classes and community colleges showing the steepest drops.

The newly released Fall 2020 State of the Student Experience poll from Gallup and Lumina Foundation surveyed about 6,000 students seeking degrees (most of them learning remotely) and 2,000 adults who left school without a degree. It reveals that while many students give high marks to the quality of their education, they fear that pandemic pressures will hurt their ability to stay in school.

Among other things, our poll found:

  • About half of students seeking bachelor’s (49%) and associate degrees (56%) are “very likely” or “likely” to stop their college careers, due to the pandemic and financial and emotional stress.
  • At least a third of students say they considered dropping out of college over the past six months (33% seeking bachelor’s and 38% seeking associate degrees), due to COVID-19 disruptions.
  • The most dissatisfied students are those trying to learn fully online. Those who moved from in-person learning this spring to online learning this fall rate the quality of learning lower, and also fare worse in their well-being. They are less likely to have mentors or to believe their professors care about them.
  • Despite pandemic disruptions, students pursuing bachelor’s degrees (76%) and associate degrees (72%) rate the quality of their education as “excellent” or “very good.” The highest ratings came from first-time students rather than returning students.

Students of color most at risk

Students of color are especially at risk. About 56% of Black and Hispanic students seeking bachelor’s degrees say COVID-19 is “very likely” or “likely” to force them to stop out of school, compared with 44% of white students. Black and first-generation students are also the least likely to say their school offers services to help them succeed, such as mental health counseling and emergency loans.

In other words, for those already struggling academically and financially, the pandemic added potentially insurmountable obstacles. In addition to emotional and financial stress, students polled mentioned health concerns, caregiving demands, and many other pressures blocking their academic goals.

While COVID-19 widened equity gaps, unfair college attainment gaps have persisted for years. This trend will continue if we don’t act quickly and intentionally to reach these students and help them develop their talents.

Insights lead to action

Rather than having to guess at what students are experiencing during the pandemic, we now know with greater clarity. These student perspectives give us real insights into how they dealt with the pandemic this fall – and how those experiences may affect future enrollment decisions.

Early numbers show that high school seniors applying for federal financial aid for college next year have dropped significantly, signaling that college enrollment may remain low during the 2021-2022 school year.

The time to act is now. Higher education has faced unprecedented challenges during COVID-19 and quickly adapted to keep students safe. Now, we need to do more for this generation defined by the pandemic. We need to surround them with the support services they urgently need, including increased mental health counseling, financial aid, and tutoring. Changes made now can have lasting effects.

I see this wealth of new student data as a cry for help. Working together, we can help students survive, thrive, and lead us all to brighter days.

Courtney Brown, Ph.D., is vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation committed to helping all Americans keep learning and training beyond high school. Learn more about the poll by Lumina and Gallup in our press release.

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