California Higher Ed Students Reflect on Pandemic’s Impact

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As states begin to administer their reopening plans following sharp declines in COVID-19 cases and increased vaccinations, some are beginning to offer reflections on how the pandemic has impacted their students.

California, which was heavily impacted by the coronavirus, has a new report offering key insights into how their student populations have experienced the ongoing health crisis and aims to serve as a guide to help inform state and federal policy decisions that can best get their populations back on track to meet their higher education trajectories.

In partnership with the California Education Lab at the University of California, Davis, the California Student Aid Commission conducted a survey aiming to reflect how COVID-19 has affected students’ college experience ranging from course-taking, work, and living situations to financial circumstances and their mental health and wellbeing.

The state-based survey was administered to the full population — nearly 1.4 million students — of California financial aid applicants in the 2020–21 academic year and was emailed to students in November 2020. More than 106,500 respondents completed the survey, resulting in a response rate of about 8%.

Among the main findings the majority of students indicated that they experienced unstable internet access (62%) as a result of the pandemic, with 22% reporting that they must leave the house to access reliable internet and 44% of students reporting difficulty accessing course materials at times.

The survey also reported that 13% of students did not have a computer readily available for online coursework. Lack of access to a computer was disproportionately experienced by Black students and students with a lower expected family contribution (EFC). Twice as many California Community College (CCC) students lacked access to a computer than those attending a University of California (UC) campus.

Internet connectivity was further hampered due to 15% of students relying on wireless hotspots, DSL or dial-up connections for internet access with the survey indicating a greater proportion of Black and Latinx students having to rely on hotspots, DSL or dial-up than their Asian and white counterparts. Further, community college students were twice as likely to rely on hotspots, DSL or dial-up internet than UC students and low-income students were more likely to be reliant on the less reliable internet connections.

Across all institutions, the majority of students also saw their living situation change (61%) as a result of the pandemic.

UC students reported the largest impact on living arrangements, with 75% reporting a change to their living situation, likely the result of closures to on-campus housing. Slightly fewer California State University (CSU) (62%) and CCC students ( 57%) reported changes.

Changes in living situations were most pronounced among the lowest-income students: 65% of students with zero EFCs reported a change in their living situation compared to only 57% of respondents with greater than $18,000 EFC. A higher proportion of Asian students (70%) experienced changes to their living arrangements compared to students from other racial/ethnic subgroups.

The pandemic also had a varied impact on the number of units students took, with 46% of all students reporting that they reduced units during fall term 2020. Almost half (49%) of Latinx students took fewer units, compared to 46% of Black students, and 41% of Asian and white students. Half of the lowest-income students reduced their unit load, compared to only 37% of their higher-income peers. CCC students were more likely to say they reduced their unit load than their counterparts at CSU and UC.

Additionally roughly 50% of respondents reported working fewer hours while a third reported they are working more. A greater proportion of Black students reported working fewer hours than students from other racial/ethnic subgroups, while a greater proportion of Latinx students reported working more compared to their peers. Almost half of CCC and CSU students worked fewer hours, compared to only 43% of UC students.

Authors of the survey urged state leaders to make investments in the higher education system and prioritize these pressing needs for students to ensure they meet their educational trajectories.

“Necessary investments include financial aid reform to reach more students for whom the real cost of attending college has been too high; new resources to support students’ basic needs and housing; expanded health and mental health services; enhanced connectivity; and improved college advising—particularly for those students who will need focused guidance to get back on track,” the report concludes. “These efforts can help restore the promise and opportunity of college, not only to recover and realize students’ aspirations but to strengthen the California economy in which they live.”


Publication Date: 6/22/2021

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