The impact of COVID-19 on the university student experience

A new study shows just how much students are struggling, and how universities can improve their experiences

Higher education has undergone a dramatic transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the onset of COVID-19 during the Spring 2020 term sent students home to engage with new or revamped online learning platforms, the Autumn 2020 term brought a range of responses. Some universities returned fully in person, some remained fully online and others practised varying degrees of both. 

In December 2020, WeWork, in partnership with brightspot strategy, a research and strategy company, conducted a blind, representative survey of over 400 US students to holistically assess the student experience during the Autumn 2020 term. The results from the December 2020 survey are the lowest self-reported assessment of the student experience since the survey was first administered in 2018.

Key findings

  • Overall student satisfaction declined 27 per cent in Autumn 2020, compared to Spring 2020 (the onset of COVID-19). 
  • Fully online students are half as satisfied compared to fully in-person students (35 per cent satisfied versus 69 per cent satisfied), hybrid students, with a mixture of in-person and online classes, are 67 per cent satisfied. Students physically attending classes are 15 per cent more likely to rate their academics ‘far above average’ this term compared to fully online students.
  • The two most important reasons students value campus – ‘in-person classes’ and ‘being together with friends’ – are areas of the student experience that have seen the greatest decline from Spring 2020 to Autumn 2020.
  • Students’ assessments of their academic growth, personal growth and community experiences have dropped between 14 and 21 per cent on average from Spring 2020 to Autumn 2020. Specifically, students reported a 23 per cent drop in ‘feeling engaged in my coursework’, and a 20 per cent drop in ‘working on long-term projects’.
  • On average, students would choose to allocate the majority of tuition (59 per cent) towards non-class expenditures (including access to technology and campus facilities), and the minority (41 per cent) towards classes. 

In Autumn 2020, approximately 44 per cent of institutions planned to open primarily or fully online, 21 per cent anticipated a hybrid model and 27 per cent planned to be primarily or fully in-person, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The move towards virtual classes was a continuation of policies in Spring 2020, when most institutions closed their campuses and completed the term online.

Click here to read the study and see what makes students more satisfied about the university experience during COVID-19.

Whether or not a student had in-person classes had the greatest impact on their satisfaction. Online learning has impacted so much of student life and hence the overall university experience. It’s difficult for students to socialise and connect with like-minded individuals through virtual courses. Students surveyed ask that universities find places where they can safely interact and socialise. Students also hope professors would foster more of a social environment in virtual classes. 

The few students who had access to a ‘third place’, a location outside their home and campus that could serve as a learning environment, such as a café or coworking space, rated their academic performance above average. These students had the highest likelihood of recommending their university to a friend; none of them were detractors of their university. They rated their campuses’ ability to make them feel part of a community the highest, among all students surveyed.

WeWork Giralda Place in Coral Gables, FL.

Those surveyed who rely on their universities for physical, mental and economic safety are pushing their institutions to be better support systems for all students. They implore universities to lower tuition and lift campus fees for students who are fully online. They ask for more financial aid and that food be made available all day. 

Looking ahead, many students are adjusting their Spring 2021 plans. Higher education leaders must recognise the importance of a fully robust student experience that covers all facets of a student’s life, on or off campus. This study examines how university responses to COVID-19 impacts students’ self-reported satisfaction, and highlights where institutions should focus their efforts during the pandemic and beyond.


Campus life and in-person classes lead to higher satisfaction

Online students are less satisfied and feel less like they belong to a community. Fully online students are half as satisfied as fully in-person students (35 per cent satisfied versus 69 per cent satisfied).

On the other hand, students physically attending classes fully are struggling less, and are 15 per cent more likely to rate their academics ‘far above average’ this term compared to fully online students. Hybrid students, with an even split of in-person and online classes, are also having a better experience than fully online students, and are 33 per cent more likely to recommend their university to a friend.

A student’s living situation also impacts satisfaction. One student described her challenges working from home: ‘It has not been working well. My household doesn’t have good Internet and there are four of us using it. My mum is also teaching, so it’s difficult to have space and good Internet.’

Whether students live on or off campus, and the degree to which their campus is open, impacts their overall experience. One student suggested that for the upcoming Spring semester their institution should ‘try to communicate as well as possible about what the university is planning so that my family [and I] can plan’.

Academics and interpersonal growth are most negatively impacted

Since Autumn 2020, students felt the biggest decline in their academic experience among all metrics evaluated. High-impact practices that correlate to increased student persistence, satisfaction and retention have been hard hit. 

One student spoke to this disconnect: ‘I have an assignment due in a week that I haven’t even started on because I don’t feel emotionally connected to the course like I would if it was in person.’

Students are struggling to prepare for their future since Spring 2020, reporting a roughly 14 per cent drop in obtaining life skills like ‘preparing for my future career’, ‘working well on a team’ and ‘expanding my comfort zone’. 

This is compounded by the fact that self-confidence has dropped 15 per cent. As one student put it, ‘I think it was most difficult to try to work out what potential career path I may want to take because of the fact that everything being online limited my abilities to gain in-the-field experience and talk to people about what they do, to work out what may interest me.’

WeWork 1460 Broadway in New York. Photograph courtesy of Her Campus Media LLC.

Online learning has also affected the way students socialise with one another, and has made it difficult for students to organically connect through classwork and shared interests. Students yearn for ways to safely socialise on campus, and ask that universities help identify places where these interactions can occur, or develop better events and activities virtually. Peer-to-peer communication in online classes is difficult, and students hope their professors could play a more significant role in fostering a social environment in virtual classroom environments. 

Beyond the classroom, students are having a difficult time engaging in extracurricular activities and assuming leadership roles, two important facets of growth and obtaining a career post-graduation. Even students who lived on campus experienced difficulty engaging. According to one student: ‘There were so many classes fully online, but I was living on campus in a dorm, so I would often have to be sitting at my desk all day from morning until afternoon, only leaving for meals.’

Overall, campus spaces were widely accessible: 89 per cent of students surveyed had access to parts of, if not their entire campuses. However, most students surveyed utilised a dedicated office or desk space in their own home environments, not the campus, as their primary study space. Twenty per cent of students used a non-work area, such as a kitchen table or a sofa as their primary workspace, and 12 per cent utilised a shared space on campus, like a library.

What universities can do

Moving forward it is important for universities to recognise that even a little in-person engagement can go a long way for students. The degree of campus openness and whether a student has access to an alternative third place greatly impact students’ ability to have in-person experiences. Universities should anticipate students adjusting their enrolment and residential plans in Spring 2021 based on access to these essential spaces.

When looking towards this spring, students are trying to find different ways to achieve a satisfactory in-person experience. If they’re not getting it through their coursework, they report, they may look for it in their residential life or a third place, such as a café or coworking space.

Universities might consider providing students with a third place – outside the home and campus – that is conducive to learning. 

During the Autumn 2020 term, some hybrid and fully online students who had limited access to campus spaces found success in a third place, a location outside their home and campus that served as a conducive learning environment. Students who worked in an alternative third place rate their academic performance exclusively above average. As a group, they have the highest likelihood of recommending their university to a friend, with none of them being detractors of their university. Students who work in a third place rate their campuses’ ability to make them feel a part of a community the highest, compared to students who work at home or on campus. Universities would do well to bear this in mind when looking for opportunities to simulate the on-campus experience for students. 

For many years, the cumulative experiences of a physical campus community have made traditional higher education unique and impactful. Without these formative physical engagements, students find themselves searching for this simulation elsewhere. When it comes to remote learning and the future of online education, there is an explicit need for somewhere beyond the campus where students can meaningfully engage and connect.

Click here to see all the results from the national student survey.

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