How Covid-19 pandemic affected higher education students’ lives globally and in the United States

August 28, 2020

Aleksander Aristovnik By Aleksander Aristovnik, Ph.D., Professor at the Faculty of Public Administration, University of Ljubljana

In a period of just few months, the COVID-19 pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus has radically transformed the lives of masses of people around the globe, including students. Indeed, as of April 1, 2020, the number of learners required to stay at home due to the closure of their educational institution at all grade levels reached a peak of 1.598 billion from 194 countries (UNESCO, 2020). Apart from the devastating health consequences for those directly affected by the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic holds major implications for the way higher education students live and work, affecting their physical and mental well-being in profound ways. To capture the immediate economic and social effects of the pandemic, between May 5 and June 15, 2020 researchers from the Faculty of Public Administration at the University of Ljubljana (along with international partners) launched a large-scale online survey across the world (31,000+ students from six continents, 100+ countries and 150+ institutions). Entitled Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Life of Higher Education Students, the online questionnaire was based on and extended “The European Students’ Union Survey (2020)” and asks higher education students – what has student life looked like during the COVID-19 pandemic, including teaching and learning, social contacts, as well as how they are coping with the situation emotionally in different parts of the world.

With this unique comprehensive global study, we tried to provide systematic meaningful insights into students' satisfaction and perception of different aspects of their lives during the pandemic, including their opinions on the immediate and distant future. We found that teaching staff and universities’ public relations offered students the most important support at the university during the pandemic. On the other hand, the lack of computer skills and the perception of a relatively higher workload prevented students from perceiving a higher performance while adapting to the ‘new normal’; namely, distance education. During the lockdown, students primarily raised concerns about their future professional career and study issues and were mainly bored, anxious and frustrated. They also changed some of their hygienic behaviors such as regularly wearing masks and washing hands, and daily routine habits like leaving home and shaking hands. While the role of both hospitals and universities appears to be positive, governments and banks did not meet the students’ expectations during the pandemic.

Socio-demographic (and geographic) factors also played an important role in the students' perception of different aspects of academic work/life as the empirical results suggest the COVID-19 pandemic has generally had a stronger effect on male students, part-time students, undergraduate students, applied sciences students, students with a lower living standard, and students from less developed regions (in Africa and Asia). Further, in order to illuminate the factors that influence students' satisfaction with the role of their university during the pandemic, an ordinal logistic regression was applied in our empirical analysis. The results demonstrate that more hopeful and less bored students, students who were more satisfied with their academic work/life, social science students, students with more resources (with a scholarship and/or the ability to pay the overall costs of study) and those who were studying in Europe showed greater satisfaction with the role and measures of their university during the COVID-19 crisis (for more see Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Life of Higher Education Students: A Global Perspective)

How do American students compare to the rest of the world?

In our sample, there were 392 student responses from the United States (including from the University of Nevada, Reno). In general, the U.S students may not have been as strongly affected academically by the COVID-19 pandemic as elsewhere in the world. In fact, they showed, in general, above (global) average satisfaction with most of the survey elements. Even more, they were highly satisfied (among the top 5 countries) with sending presentations and written communications as part of a reorganization of tutorials/seminars and practical classes, and with e-mail communication as part of supervision/mentorships. They were also very satisfied with lecturers` responses in terms of providing course assignments (e.g. readings, homework, quizzes) on a regular basis, responding to questions in a timely manner and informing students on what exams will look like in this new situation. The U.S. students were also among the front-runners in exposing their confidence in computer skills (e.g. sharing digital content, using online teaching and collaboration platforms, etc.) and satisfaction with the support of the teaching staff and the international office. Surprisingly, below average satisfaction was noticed when assessing students` access to a quiet place to study or to a desk. Moreover, the U.S students showed significantly less satisfaction (2.6 out of 5) with the government`s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. As a comparison, students in New Zealand showed the greatest level of satisfaction with their government response (4.6). Nevertheless, the U.S. students are more satisfied with the role of their universities (3.5) as the U.S. ranks in the top third of the studied countries.

According to our findings, the COVID-19 crisis corroborate the concerns of international institutions like the United Nations, which stress the importance of the efficient delivery of educational programs in order to avoid digital, social, economic and gender inequalities. Policymakers on all levels should invest in digital literacy and infrastructure, while educational institutions should provide flexible delivery methods, digital platforms and modernized user-friendly curricula to both students and teachers. All authorities involved in higher education systems and the well-being of students, who constitute an extremely important segment of the population, should prepare a set of proactive measures in the higher education arena so as to ensure the proper support for students and their healthy development in these ever-changing circumstances caused by the pandemic.