The first fall semester of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, and according to over 5,000 freshman respondents in the Eduventures Student Experience Survey, it wasn’t how they imagined college. A striking one out of five students said they were—at best—unsure about their spring plans.

The factors that influence whether students stay or leave have changed in 2021, and more students seem to wonder whether it is all worth it. To keep attrition at bay this year, schools must assess and combat it differently. What a new generation of at-risk students have to say about their experience can teach us about retention and recruiting the next class.

“Being online and at home is extremely unmotivating.”

To start, what were the top reasons students felt unsure about returning to school after their first semester this year? Were they concerned about health or finances? These matter indeed, as Figure 1 illustrates, but neither ranks number one.

 

Reasons for Not Returning to School in the Spring (Among First-Year College Students)Figure 1.

 

Thirty-seven percent were worried about their health, and 25% said they couldn’t afford to attend. More interesting, however, is another theme that emerges: 40% wanted to wait until they could get the full college experience, and 32% said college was not worth what they paid for it.

What is this full college experience that students feel they are missing out on? Understanding their experiences so far can provide some clues. Figure 2 shows that students who were studying entirely online were less likely to return than their peers studying on campus, especially if they also lived at home.

 

Spring Retention Risk by Campus ExposureFigure 2.

 

Notably, while retention risk and dissatisfaction are higher among those who studied online and lived at home, Figure 2 confirms that even a hybrid class schedule carries greater retention risk compared to one where all classes are on campus. These results are similar across different types of institutions. While students at private four-year schools report greater satisfaction with their experiences, they were no less likely to consider leaving after the fall semester.

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and vaccination rates behind schedule, many institutions find themselves facing another remote semester as they work to bring in the next class—a class that is closely watching what is happening on campus and using this to inform their own college choices. If students don’t value the experiences institutions are currently able to provide, should institutional leaders just resign themselves to the prospect of another rocky year ahead?

We don’t think so. There’s still time to improve the student experience regardless of modality constraints. The work ahead will be difficult, but it can be done. Here are some insights about what students think can be improved:

Online learning is not the sum of all Zoom meetings.

One frequent complaint about online classes is a lack of learning. Students report that Zoom lectures mean a lack of meaningful instruction, and that faculty try to make up missed classroom time with busywork that results in increased time pressure. What seems to be missing for many is a sense of purpose, a growth of passion for their fields, and an appreciation of the relevance of the coursework to students’ chosen career paths:

“College isn’t worth it; Zoom classes are useless and I haven’t learned a thing this year.”

“I’m not learning at all. Each week it’s just an effort to turn in all assignments and tests on time; it’s not even to learn. Genuinely I’m worried that I’m wasting money and not learning anything about my career.”

“My learning space is in my living room so it’s not ideal when I have to have my camera & mic on for Zoom while my family is moving around doing things.”

 

Services, not just academics, need to be accessible.

Students struggle not just with an altered academic experience, they also deal with multiple stressors in their lives. Some of these, like adjusting to school, are universal but have been changed by the pandemic. Others are unique to the pandemic, like lost income or a declining mental health. Students need the services that colleges provide more than ever before, but often feel isolated from them. Onboarding, advising, and student life cannot be put on hold in a virtual environment:

“I’m worried about not being able to be there next semester because of the financial aid office not helping me with my financial aid packet on time. I’m really scared.”

“I would’ve loved getting more help with enrolling in classes as well as getting used to them as a first-year student. It was very hard to decide what classes to get and because of the pandemic, we were kind of just left in the dark.”

The student experience is as important as academics.

Pandemic or not, the college journey still is a rite of passage into adulthood, and having opportunities to find and foster passions are a large part of that. For many students, the path to maturity has been impeded by the inability to be on campus and among peers. Students struggle to connect with others and make friends. While face-to-face interactions may remain restricted, it is critical to creatively provide virtual opportunities to simulate a sense of community:

“It’s very boring. I stay in the house most of the day, I know no one from my classes, and if I’m not in class or doing homework, I am working out or watching a movie.”

“I liked being online for the most part, but I don’t like how I can’t make friends in my classes because there is no sense of community on there. It feels like everyone is a robot.”

“I think my school has done a great job with doing the best they can with the current circumstances. There are game nights and online Minecraft servers to help build a sense a community.”

The Bottom Line

Chances are, your institution has long had sound systems and processes in place to anticipate and mitigate student attrition. These traditionally at-risk students are likely those with academic difficulty, financial distress, or a lack of community connections, and many early alert systems rely on in-person interventions. But the indicators have changed, rendering long-proven predictive models inaccurate, and the usual interventions more challenging.

This new generation of at-risk student is the otherwise stable student who now feels isolated or deprived of opportunity . To keep them on track, it won’t be about pre-2020 predictive models and tutoring or financial aid. It will be about looking for them outside of the usual methods and finding ways to restore a sense of community and opportunity in the student experience.

The good news is, if you put in your best effort, the loss of a “normal” college experience can be softened. As one student put it:

“Even though I’m generally disappointed in how my semester is, I am pleased with how my school has chosen to handle it and simulate a normal school environment virtually, especially when I hear from my friends at other schools.”

 

For more information about this year’s at-risk students, Eduventures subscribers can now access the First-Year Student Experience Survey Report in the Encoura Data Lab Research Library. Contact your Client Research Advisor with any questions.

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Johanna Trovato

Eduventures Senior Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA
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Pandemic-Proof Your Enrollment Strategy with Admitted Student Research

This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.

By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:

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