Enrollment Insights Blog

Student Voices – The Path to Fall 2020

Last updated 6/1/20

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The Big Takeaways

  • Students want some aspect of normality, and are averse to online learning as the sole method of instruction. Three scenarios appealed to the majority of undergraduate students: In-person classes, offering classes online and in-person simultaneously (hybrid flexible), and 3-4 week block schedules (Block or Module Plan).
  • 30% of students reported that they would be likely to transfer if their school continued online learning in the fall.
  • The least popular scenario is delaying the start to the fall semester, but even so fewer students would be likely to transfer than with online learning.
  • 6% of high school seniors are considering taking time off, but incoming community college students are the least likely at 4%.
  • Students expect to pay less if they are taking online or hybrid classes in the fall. This could either indicate a misunderstanding of the cost to provide excellent online experiences or a devaluing of online learning by students.
  • The best scenarios to mitigate undergraduate attrition are either living on campus while learning online (the model used by Minerva Schools at KGI) or a hybrid flexible model (in-person and online simultaneously). These scenarios proved to be appealing to students who were otherwise strongly considering transferring.
  • International students were most likely to be considering transferring if they are attending a community college or graduate school. Undergraduate international students at public universities were also more likely to be considering transferring.

“We cannot delay the start of the school year. No matter where we are learning from, we must continue to learn and grow.”

HS Junior from Pennsylvania

The Survey and Responses

We asked questions based upon Insider Higher Ed’s article sharing 15 scenarios. We simplified these scenarios and combined those that had more subtle differences, presenting our high school respondents with three scenarios and our college and graduate school respondents with ten different scenarios. Results are based on 21,847 responses from high school, college, and graduate school students.

  • 1,242 HS Freshman/Sophomore
  • 2,889 HS Juniors
  • 7,813 HS Seniors
  • 8,230 Undergraduate students
  • 1,112 Graduate students
  • 551 Gap year/returning students enrolling this fall

“All in all, safety is and should stay the primary concern when regarding these future policies. With this in mind, there is also a risk to not be able to fully educate the classes in an online environment especially for very hands on classes.”

HS Senior from California

The Fall College Scenarios

The left column shows how appealing the scenario is and the right column shows responses to the question “How likely would you be to transfer if your college chose this scenario?” (High school scenarios are below in a separate section)

Three scenarios appealed to the majority of undergraduate students: In-person classes, offering classes online and in-person simultaneously (hybrid flexible), and 3-4 week block schedules (Block or Module Plan). Students want some aspect of normality, and are averse to online learning as the sole method of instruction.

“I just miss having in-person classes because it gave me structure. If [My School] had a program or something similar to help students gain routine again, it would probably help them a lot keeping up with classes and finding motivation to work.”

Undergraduate student from Colorado

The biggest issues reported with online learning are a lack of consistent, or any, Internet access and a loss of structure for students. Schools should be working to find ways to introduce structure while still being flexible in online learning. Online learning will always inherently leave some students behind; not everyone has Internet access, technology, or adequate space to study at home. In conversation with Niche partners we’ve found the most success with models with required class times and office hours with faculty, modeling the structure of a normal school day.

“As an education major I learn a lot of information by having hands-on work in elementary schools and doing collaborative projects in class with my peers. To take this away is to take away the resources needed to be an effective teacher. Taking off a semester is not an option for me either because it would set me back an entire year versus one semester since education major schedules are so structured.”

Undergraduate student from South Carolina

International students were most likely to be considering transferring if they are attending a community college or graduate school. Undergraduate international students at public universities were also more likely to be considering transferring. From our prior survey we also are finding that, unlike their domestic peers, international students are growing less satisfied with their school’s response over time.

“I am an international student, my financial situation is very bad, moving to NY to undertake my studies would be an enormous effort and compromise my future. I am a musician and know the importance of face-to-face learning in the field. I cannot move to NY to have online lessons.”

Graduate student from Munich, Germany

The type of events that matter most differed by the type of student. Community college and graduate students most want social events returned, 4-year undergraduate students want campus housing to open. Arts events returning was most important to students at private 4-year institutions.

What are college students saying?

First-Year Undergraduate Students

Even first-year students, your incoming class, are split on whether only having first-year students on campus and others studying online is appealing or unappealing. They were also less likely to believe that tuition should be the same if classes are in person or online. Those enrolling at private institutions were more likely to report that it is very important that campus events reopen.

“First year students will definitely be overwhelmed if classes are online, even partially. The transition to college-level work is difficult enough without the added challenges of having to learn from home.”

HS Senior from France

Returning/Gap Year Undergraduate Students

Students who were not enrolled anywhere last year but are enrolling in college this coming fall behaved quite differently. They found events and activities much less important and were more likely to say that tuition should be the same regardless of the delivery method. In fact, their preferred fall scenario is online learning. It’s very likely that these students are already considering online institutions, most reported that they will be enrolling at community colleges and for-profit institutions.

“The major reason I am against going back to in school teachings is because my father is immunosuppressed, and if I were to come back to school carrying it I don’t think I could live with myself. But since I have already taken a gap year, I really want to get the ball rolling and start getting ahead on classes.”

Gap Year student from Massachusetts

Continuing Undergraduate Students

Continuing students were, unsurprisingly, much more likely to be opposed to the scenario in which first-year students would move to campus and continuing students would earn online, it was second only to delaying the start of the semester in lack of appeal. They were also more likely to find a hybrid flexible model appealing and much less likely to find flexible blocks appealing.

Also counter-intuitive, continuing students were less likely to feel that opening campus housing was very important and were more likely to report that continuing social events and athletics were not at all important. Students returning to private institutions were more likely to feel they were important than those attending public institutions.

“First years on campus while upperclassmen remain off campus seems counterintuitive. The 3-4 week adaptability block is a confusing prospect. Hybrid options are appealing to consider.”

Undergraduate student from Wisconsin

Enrolling Graduate Students

College seniors enrolling in graduate school next year were closely split between finding in-person classes and a hybrid flexible model the most appealing. They were also much more likely to find online learning appealing.

“Online learning in my experience has not allowed me to actually learn critical information. Next fall I will be a graduate student and I really need to learn and understand the material as this is my career. Therefore, if we do not have in person classes it is likely that many students, including myself, will drop classes for the semester.”

Enrolling graduate students from New York

Continuing Graduate Students

Graduate students continuing their program behaved similarly to their incoming graduate school peers. They were most positive about in-person and hybrid flexible scenarios and were much more likely to find online learning appealing. Domestic graduate students were much more likely to also find flexible block schedules appealing than their international peers.

“Although I looked forward to graduate school orientation and our weekend cohort visits scheduled for this semester, I think that returning to campus prematurely is unsafe unless there are measures in place that strictly follow the CDC guidelines.”

Graduate student from Alabama

How Students Want High Schools to Adapt

“I miss school so much. I would give anything to wake up at 6am and get in my car by 7 to get to school. I would do anything to have hours of homework after getting home at 8pm and to see my friends and take real tests and go to events. I want my life back. My clubs and sports. My friends.”

Public HS student from Wisconsin

The only scenario preferred by the majority of students was to have in-person classes. Students even preferred online learning to delaying the start of the fall semester, impressive considering that only 7% of students reported that they found online classes to be effective. Public high school students were more open to both online learning and delaying the start than private school students.

“I would just like to say that I don’t want any schools to jump the gun and come back next fall if it is not safe to do so. This coming fall will be the start to my senior year, my last year in “normal” school. Of course I want to be with my friends, “living it up,” learning things I love, going to games, participating in sports myself, but I’d much rather I lose out on all of that than the world falling deeper and deeper into tragedy with the virus. I want them to know that, at this point, I don’t even care if school gets delayed and we go into next summer or we start online and then go in-person. Yet, if we are able to return to in-person class, I would enjoy that. We all would enjoy that, but please don’t base decisions around us seniors feelings, please base them off of the good of the world.”

Public HS student from Michigan

“Online learning has been working in my school. We should maintain what we have achieved and build on it until there is a safer way to return to school.”

Private HS student from Massachusetts

High school students really want to have athletic opportunities, clubs, and social events again. This could be an opportunity for high schools to catch up with higher ed in the e-sports arena for the competitive school pride and to adapt traditional experiences to social distancing and virtual settings. Public high school students most valued social events while private high school students most valued athletic events. Arts events were the least important to both groups, but mattered slightly more to private school students.

“As a senior, and now a captain of the football team, I would do anything to be back with my team on the field. I want my senior year to be normal as I have waited 13 years for this moment.”

Private HS student from Wisconsin

Students Considering Deferring or Transferring

Undergraduate students attending private universities were slightly more likely to be considering transferring than peers at public institutions. The group most likely to say that they were strongly considering transferring were students attending for-profit institutions or who were unsure of the control of their school. Seniors who will be first-year students in the fall were most likely to defer enrollment if they are planning to enroll at a for-profit institution. Overall, only 6% of students report that they are considering deferring enrollment, close to our prior survey.

One interesting point is that the best scenarios to win back students who were saying that they were likely to transfer regardless are having students living on campus while learning online (the model used by Minerva Schools at KGI) or a hybrid flexible model (in-person and online simultaneously). Both offer the normality of returning to campus combined with flexible online learning.

High school seniors considering deferring most want in-person classes and 3-4 week block schedules. This further signals their desire to have a normal college experience.

Most students do not think that tuition (not including room and board) should be the same if classes are online. However, 31% of students attending for profit schools thought pricing should be the same, almost three times their peers.

“I understand that this pandemic is something out of the ordinary however college is extremely expensive and online classes make it more difficult to learn. I think financial aid packages and expenses should be reconsidered when making final decisions.”

HS Senior from Maryland

Actionable Insights

  • If it’s possible to even bring some students back in waves students will find this preferable to an online only fall semester.
  • No plan will make everyone happy, but more flexibility and listening to student and parent input can help mitigate retention loss.
  • Social and arts events should be brought back as soon as possible in virtual ways and adapted to social distancing. Students want to engage with each other and feel connected to their school.
  • Lean in to e-sports or other competitive ways that students can still feel pride and competition but do not risk their health.
  • Flexible pricing and focusing on net tuition revenue rather than total revenue (many non tuition revenue streams cannot be counted on) will help reconfigure financial aid packages. There has been an upheaval in household incomes and students need support. Payment plans, deferring payments, and programs like Questa are crucial to supporting students and not losing significant enrollments.

The Path Forward?

There will be faculty, staff, and students uncomfortable with any scenario. My recommendation (taken as just opinion of course) would be to provide as much flexibility as possible. Offering blocks of Hybrid Flexible courses to accommodate the needs of students, faculty, and staff seems like a good experiment for the fall. That would allow students who need the stability and access to technology that campus offers to not be left behind while also allowing those who prefer to be remote to do so. The combination of the two scenarios would allow for maximum flexibility and breaks between blocks could be used for evaluation and deep cleaning. This also would be closest to the scenarios most likely to retain students saying they were strongly considering transferring regardless.

In this scenario masks and social distancing should be mandatory for anyone on campus, opening things up is risky enough that leaders should require safety measures. If leaders want to incentivize online learning they could even offer discounts for those who choose to study remotely. The vigilance and strong leadership of student and institutional leaders will be crucial to the success of this, or any, scenario.

Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.