Poll: Four in five New York college students worry about staying on track to graduate because of pandemic

by | May 28, 2020 | Press Release

Low-income students and students of color are particularly in need of supports to help them navigate the pandemic

NEW YORK – College students across New York State are experiencing intense academic, emotional, and financial instability during the coronavirus pandemic, with four in five (81%) indicating in a recent poll that they are concerned about staying on track to graduate.

Consistent with the trends for New York, nationwide the concern about staying on track to graduate is heightened for Black (84%) and Latinx (81%) students.

Students also report declining engagement in their coursework (nationwide: 57% has gotten worse since the pandemic; NY: 65%) and the quality of their education (nationwide: 53% worse; NY: 54%) since colleges and universities moved online, even as many colleges and universities are making extraordinary efforts to support students and adjust to the pandemic. Students also identified wide gaps in the services that would be helpful in navigating the challenges of the pandemic and those services that schools have provided so far. In particular, students indicated that better access to online resources and additional opportunities for interactions with faculty, counselors, and staff would be helpful.

The poll, conducted by Global Strategy Group, also found that students are struggling to afford tuition and basic necessities. A third (34%) in New York have skipped or reduced meals because they cannot afford or access food. Just 42% say they think they will be able to pay for basic needs like food, housing, and tuition if the current crisis isn’t resolved in the next two months.

The results of the poll, released by The Education Trust–New York in partnership with higher education equity advocates from across the state, underscore how the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequities for students of color, first-generation college students, and students from lower-income households who already faced too many barriers to an affordable, high-quality college education and degree completion.

The findings also highlight the urgent need to support college and university students both during and in the aftermath of the pandemic and set a path to a stronger, more equitable education system in the future. The poll demonstrates a need to enhance support for students before they drop out or suffer even more trying to continue their studies. To change this trajectory, colleges and universities will need to prepare to meet students’ academic and non-academic needs as never before, and the federal government will need to provide states with emergency funding to protect higher education budgets and support students.

“More than four in five college students in New York are worried about staying on track to graduate, and the pandemic is making the existing inequities in our educational system even worse,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust–New York“New York students recognize the efforts their colleges and universities are making in these unprecedented circumstances, and at the same time students need greater support than ever before. It is more important than ever that New York’s colleges and universities be engines of social and economic mobility, which requires continued state action and greater federal investment in emergency relief for students, colleges and universities, and states.”

“These disparities existed among the Latinx community before COVID-19. The pandemic has only made them harder to ignore,” said Frankie Miranda, president of Hispanic Federation. “We need to focus on addressing the immediate needs of our students, so that their college progression does not halt. These poll results show significant long-term impacts affecting our already marginalized communities. We must seize this as an opportunity to take action.”

“As a first-generation immigrant student, COVID-19 has exacerbated many of my fears when it comes to educational attainment,” said Darleny Suriel, policy assistant for #DegreesNYC and a Borough of Manhattan Community College student. “I fear that remote learning may affect my ability to graduate on time next semester and my transfer process to a four-year college. I also fear for the long-term negative effects that remote learning will have on my autistic brother’s education and development due to the fact that I am the one home-schooling him even though I am not a trained special needs educator. All of these stressors have negatively impacted my mental health and my ability to be completely focused on my tasks for school and work.”

The poll results in New York mirror findings on a national level and in California, where a similar poll was conducted by The Education Trust–West.

Among the key additional findings in New York:

Academic achievement

The pandemic threatens academic achievement, ranging from lower engagement and concerns about academic performance to doubts about whether graduation and subsequent career opportunities are even possible anymore.

  • A majority (59%) of New York students report that their school has handled the coronavirus well. More than three in four (78%) New York students have confidence in their professors’ or instructors’ ability to teach online or virtual classwork.
  • Yet more than half (54%) of New York students say the quality of instruction they receive is worse due to colleges going virtual, and 65% say their interest and engagement in coursework is waning.
  • 83% of New York students are worried that their grades will suffer due to the coronavirus pandemic, 81% are worried about staying on track to graduate, and 75% are worried they will not get the skills or work experience they need to get a job.
  • 19% of New York students are not confident they will even return to school in the fall.
  • 39% of two-year New York students say they are less likely to consider transferring to a four-year program than before the pandemic.

Financial instability

Students are struggling to meet their own basic needs, including food and housing, in addition to tuition.

  • Most (73%) of New York students feel uneasy about their personal finances.
  • A third (34%) of New York college students—and 56% of students from lower-income households—have skipped or reduced the size of their meals because they cannot afford or access food.
  • Only 42% of New York students say they think they will be able to pay for expenses like food, housing, and tuition if the current crisis isn’t resolved in the next two months. Among students from low-income households the figure drops to an alarming 32%.

Mental Health

  • A shocking 40% of New York students are worried about developing substance abuse or addiction during this time.
  • 81% say they are concerned about developing or worsening depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues during this time.

Needs and Resources

The poll also collected data on both supply and demand for services and resources, revealing a gap between what is needed and what is available. Most students reported that tutoring, virtual office hours, financial aid, mental health services, online textbooks, and internet access would be helpful while few reported them being available. Schools will need to be prepared to close these gaps when students return in the fall.

Would be helpful School is doing this
86% 61% Tutoring, advising, or other academic support
84% 48% Virtual office hours or other ways to connect with faculty
84% 54% Virtual office hours or other ways to connect with academic or career advisors
83% 36% Emergency financial aid or other financial support
75% 29% Mental health services, counseling, and emotional or psychological support
73% 32% Career advising and job preparation
67% 13% Alternative housing arrangements
63% 22% Food support, like access to food pantries

“Our high school youth—attending Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology—face the same pre-existing inequities described in the report,” said Gina Burkhardt, chief executive officer of Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology. “For them, any incentive and motivation to attend college is dwindling fast, which concerns us deeply.”

“COVID-19 has laid bare the gross inequities that exist in our nation’s education systems,” said LaKisha N. Williams, assistant director of advocacy and community engagement for the Goddard Riverside Options Center. “Yet what institutions and policymakers are not entirely grasping are the faces and families attached to their decisions. Young people have been juggling remote learning and coping with social distancing while people around them are still actively dying, some struggle with food and housing insecurity, others have become primary caregivers or head of their household. And now summer has been snatched from under them and fall is full of uncertainty. How do they breathe under the weight of all that? We must ensure that they have everything they need. And we simply cannot afford to fail at this.”

“This pandemic has exacerbated the inequities that existed for Latinx and first-generation college students who are often denied access to the opportunity to obtain a higher education,” said Angelica Perez-Delgado, president and chief executive officer of Ibero-American Action League. Our students need our full support both now and in the aftermath of this crisis so that all students will be able to obtain their dreams of earning a college education. That is a critical piece to breaking the cycle of poverty that persists in our communities.”

“These survey results provide key data points for secondary and postsecondary organizations to consider as they plan to address critical student needs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” said Stephanie Espina, president of the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling. “Now, more than ever, we need to bridge communication and efforts across New York State to form a united front as we work together to solve these issues.”

“This pandemic has brought to light the inequities that persist in our communities, including our colleges and universities,” said Arva Rice, president and CEO of the New York Urban League. “New York leaders must act now to support college students both during and in the aftermath of this pandemic, particularly students of color and students from low-income households who are already underrepresented in college pathways. It is imperative that we ensure all students have access to the resources they need to continue their higher education. The future of our communities and our state depend on it.”

“Student veterans all over New York are facing unique challenges as they struggle to navigate college life during the pandemic,” said Ramond Curtis, state policy manager for Veterans Education Success. “These findings provide valuable insight that will help shape more efficient and effective support systems for students.”

“The inequities that exist in higher education are not new, but as this poll shows the pandemic is only widening the divide between the college education well-resourced New Yorkers receive, and the experience of the state’s low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color,” said Marissa Muñoz, Northeast regional director for Young Invincibles. “When nearly three in five of the state’s low-income college students can’t afford to eat, now is the time to make sure our campuses are equipped to address students’ most basic needs, like food and housing. Our state must invest in these critical campus supports — or expect to see even further inequities in our college system.”

Read the poll memo and find additional resources at EdTrustNY.org/Coronavirus.