Grace Wheaton, Virginia Management Fellow
Tom Allison, Senior Associate of Finance & Innovation
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Nearly three in four Virginia college students are combating anxiety, worry or other challenges to their mental health because of COVID-19, according to SCHEV’s survey of more than 1,000 Virginian college students. The survey, conducted from April 20 to May 4, 2020, revealed that 80 percent of students are struggling with academics, while another 45 percent are dealing with employment difficulties.
Like many others, students at Virginia’s higher education institutions navigated an overnight shift to at-home, online learning; a dramatic transition that undoubtedly impacted students' education and well-being. Given that, we at SCHEV wanted to know what students were thinking, feeling, and experiencing over these past few months. The survey is part of our effort to elevate their perspectives in conversations about higher education and COVID-19.
When asked how they were handling the transition, concerns over mental health and the transition to online education dominated responses; a vast majority of students reported issues in these two areas. In answers to open-ended questions, students expressed these concerns as sadness over the loss of milestones, fears about the well-being of friends and loved ones, and anxiety from the overall uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Here are a few examples of student responses:
“Mentally it’s extremely exhausting because you have everything weighing on you. Your world and classes can’t stop just because everything else has.” (Student, Lord Fairfax Community College)
“Mental health concerns have been a problem for me due to the pandemic. The pandemic itself has caused a lot of anxiety because of all of the unknowns associated with it. On top of that, transitioning to online classes and working from a different environment has added stress.”(Student, Old Dominion University)
“I have particularly struggled with changes to online courses. As a first-gen student, I heavily rely on being able speak with professors during office hours and/or have a more constant mode of contact in person.”(Student, University of Richmond)
The survey also indicated that technology, such as internet access or online course requirements were major stressors for students. More than a third of students reported issues, and many stated that they didn’t have the tools needed to move to 100% online classes. Students reported issues using required institution software, doing coursework on smartphones, or having to sit in parking lots with public wifi in order to attend classes.
Furthermore, almost half of students reported issues related to employment. These concerns were primarily from students experiencing job losses (or whose families were), and managing the sudden reduction in income. Conversely, we also heard from a number of students employed as essential workers who were strained under the workload of school, jobs, and other obligations.
Many students reported more than one issue they’ve struggled with in the past month. We heard countless responses from those working hard to balance school, work, and meeting basic needs - plus the added unknown of a global pandemic. As one student from Southwest Virginia Community College told us:
“I work part time at Walmart (Pounding Mill), so I come into contact with many different people. I am finishing my last semester of community college this Spring (2020) and I have an eight-year-old daughter in 3rd grade . . . I have personally decided to limit my work days at Walmart going forward to three days a week, due to concerns of contacting COVID-19 and parents have to practically home-school and teach children. So that can be stressful, because I work, go to school, and now have to worry even more about childcare for my daughter and completing her schoolwork.” (Student, Southwest Virginia Community College)
Students also reported other concerns. Approximately one in 10 reported experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity or challenges with childcare. Another 18 percent were concerned about financial aid. And an additional 19 percent had concerns about their physical well-being, be it COVID-19 itself or the challenges it presented in managing other healthcare needs.
In short, what the survey reveals is that our students have very real needs and are under enormous stress. As summed up by a student at the College of William & Mary:
“I am taking it day by day, but on the whole, I feel exhausted. Trying to graduate, changing my life plans (because of COVID related issues), worrying about the now (food and job) is challenging.”(Student, College of William & Mary)
Optimism & Resilience
Not all of the results indicate bad news: a good portion of students report handling the transition well or liking online classes more than in-person ones. Many expressed gratitude for the resources they do have or for the support they are receiving. More expressed optimism, adopting the philosophy of taking things “one day at a time.” Students also displayed remarkable resilience, setting up alternative work spaces, keeping to new schedules, and understanding the broader societal context in a trying time. For instance, one student at Piedmont Virginia Community College told us: “I feel like I’m doing pretty well; there are inconveniences of course but I try to look at the bigger picture.”
Institutions and others are taking action to address these challenges. Many institutions created pages providing COVID-19 specific information. They’re also working to make emergency aid (both federal and institution specific) available to students. At the national level, nonprofits such as the Hope Center and the Department of Education have made additional resources available to students as well. Governor Northam has charged a work group with developing a guide to help schools open safely and equitably.
At SCHEV, we’ve also collected COVID-19 resources for students and institutions. It includes information such as guidance from our Student Loan Ombudsman, and information on federal legislation for institutions. The webpage also includes a video of Virginia’s college and university presidents offering a digital show of support for students.
One final note: SCHEV is immensely grateful to those students who shared their experiences with us. From the many responses, it’s clear that our students are demonstrating remarkable determination and grace during this crisis. We are proud of our students and will continue listening to what they have to say.
SCHEV conducted its student perspective survey from April 20 to May 4, 2020, using the Survey Monkey polling platform. The survey, disseminated to students through institutions and social media channels, contained three sections: a student information section, a “check all that apply” section and a short answer section. Total responses equalled 1018.