Compared to undergraduates at four-year higher education institutions, community college students who shifted to remote learning this spring due to the pandemic wanted to hear more from their college on academic advising, transfer services and tutoring, according to a new report from Ithaka S+R.
“These students were likely signaling greater uncertainty about academics and a desire for more institutional support,” says the report, which is based on a survey of more than 15,000 students from 21 U.S. colleges and universities about their experience this spring in transitioning to remote learning. It included 2,354 students (15 percent) from four community colleges (Amarillo College in Texas, Hagerstown Community College in Maryland, Northern Virginia Community College and Renton Technical College in Washington state).
Overall, the most significant challenges that all college students faced this spring due to the pandemic were often those they faced long before the pandemic, including balancing school, work and home responsibilities, the report says. Having to quickly pivot to remote learning and finding quiet space to complete coursework work added to the difficulty, it says.
In a fall 2018 survey of community college students conducted by Ithaka S+R, a smaller share of students reported difficulty with many of the same activities.
“For example, more than twice as many community college students in spring 2020 had difficulty with finding a quiet space to study compared to those in the previous study,” the report says. “The disparate results in each of these surveys underscores the impact of the pandemic and the importance of physical space for learning.”
Ithaka S+R focused its survey questions on four areas: institutional communications and support; course activities and formats; student well-being; and possible fall enrollment.
After the shift to virtual instruction, students did not feel especially connected to each other or their instructors, the report says. While connectivity with both groups were rated low, students overall felt more connected to their instructors than each other, it says.
“Graduate students as well as community college students tended to feel relatively more connected to their instructors than did undergraduates at four-year colleges, and graduate students also felt relatively most connected to other students,” the report says.
Students generally understood institutional policies related to the pandemic, but they wanted additional communication and support from financial aid and academic advising departments, according to the report.
Struggling with basic needs
Roughly one in three students were worried about food and housing security. Among students who had concerns around basic needs as a result of the pandemic, higher rates were found among students of color and Pell-eligible students, the report says.
“The differences by race/ethnicity are stark; almost double the share of students of color report concern for maintaining their basic needs — both related to food and housing — compared to their white peers,” it says.
Students struggling with food and housing insecurity are sometimes less likely than their peers who are not struggling with these issues to know where to go to find emergency resources, such as emergency funding/loans, food pantries and shelters, the report adds.
“While these inverse correlations are not strong, the directionality is troubling. The students who need these resources the most should be the ones with the greatest levels of awareness of where to find them,” it says.
Comparable differences were found between students who are Pell-eligible and those who are not. Not surprisingly, students at community colleges — which tend to serve student populations that are relatively more diverse and financially disadvantaged — reported greater concerns than those at four-year institutions.
Looking to fall enrollment
The report also looks at what current college students may do for the fall term. The majority of non-graduating college students indicated that they are very likely to re-enroll at their current college or university in the fall, but many students are uncertain about their longer-term timeline for degree completion, according to the report.
Excluding students who were graduating, more than eight in 10 respondents reported that they were very or somewhat likely to re-enroll in classes in the coming semester. Eight percent of the students who planned to re-enroll expect that the pandemic would affect their timeline for graduating, with one-third saying they were unsure if their timeline would be impacted.
Roughly one-fifth of non-graduating students said that they would not return in the fall or were unsure of their plans. Of those students, almost one-third were considering or planning to transfer to another college or university, one in six were not planning on continuing their education at all, and more than half indicated other reasons for not re-enrolling.
Some of these reasons include financial constraints, perceived decrease of educational value of online compared to in-person instruction, difficulty with online learning, and general difficulty during the current semester.
About half of the students not planning to re-enroll felt they had the tools and resources needed to complete their coursework compared to three-quarters of the students who planned to re-enroll.
In addition to the institutional support, direct support from faculty will be crucial for retaining these students, the report says.
“College and university guidelines for faculty may help in this effort so that instructors do not need to develop support strategies individually,” it says.