The current economic situation in the United States seems dire: Widespread non-essential business closures as a response to COVID-19 have led to skyrocketing unemployment rates. Although job availability has increased since April, the unemployment rate is still above 11% (compared to only 3.5% in February), and states that have previously lifted restrictions are starting to implement restrictions once again as cases continue to rise, leaving many worried about their financial stability.
The good news is that job availability seems to be directly related to businesses’ ability to operate, and government restrictions on operations should ease once the virus is under control. In other words, the inflated unemployment rate and lack of job opportunities should improve over time, but many are worried about when that’ll happen.
Those concerns are most salient for college students, who are preparing to enter into an uncertain job market. Those fears aren’t particularly unfounded considering that those who graduated during the most-recent recession in 2008 are still struggling to catch up even a decade later, according to CNN.
Current college students luckily have some time for the economy to bounce back before they graduate, but safety precautions on college campuses and the current job market hinder their ability to build relevant experience.
With the fall semester around the corner, many students aren’t in the same financial situation they were last year, and many are concerned about changes to curriculum that might impact their education.
To learn more about students’ perceptions and concerns about returning to college, we surveyed 1,000 college students about how COVID-19 might affect their future careers, their financial situations, and concerns about returning to campus.
We also surveyed 100 college administrators about their plans to address financial, health, and safety concerns voiced by students across the nation.
Table of Contents
- Students Are Stuck in Rental Agreements
- Students Are Missing Out on Resume-Building Opportunities
- Students Struggle to Keep or Find Jobs to Pay for School
- Parents Are Losing Their Jobs, Impacting Students’ Finances
- Job Losses Lead to Steep Increase in Debt
- Students Are Worried About Online Education Quality
- Students Are Unsure Colleges Can Ensure Student Health
- Students Trust Themselves, Not Peers, to Socially Distance
Personal Finance Insights
- 46% of college students are moderately or extremely concerned about paying rent during the school year, and 29% of students with rental lease agreements weren’t able to get out of their lease for the school year despite trying.
- 48% of students are worried about paying for their tuition this year, likely as a result of lost income
- 36% of students said a parent lost income as a result of COVID-19 and it impacted their ability to pay for college and living expenses.
- Lost personal and parental income has led to increased debt: 48% of college students are borrowing more as a result of COVID-19, and 33% of students are taking out an additional $10,000 in student debt this year compared to last.
- College students are 21% more likely to carry credit card debt and 33% more likely to have personal loans to help cover expenses this fall than they were in 2019, per Clever’s Student Debt Survey.
Careers and Jobs Insights
- 71% of students believe COVID-19 will impact their ability to begin their career after college.
- Students are struggling to maintain jobs that sustain them during the school year: 1 in 4 students lost their part-time job, and 1 in 5 lost their full-time job this year due to COVID-19.
- Students are also having trouble finding new jobs to help boost their resume and pay for living expenses: 76% of students looking for jobs for the upcoming school year reported difficulty doing so.
- Students’ biggest career concerns include missing out on internships (44%), missing out on networking events (41%), losing out on relevant job experience (38%), and fewer relationships with faculty and students that help their network (38%).
- Compared to students surveyed in May 2019, students in 2020 are 64% less likely to have a part-time job to help cover expenses, and 48% are worried they won’t be able to find a job during the school year.
- Nearly 90% of students agreed that online courses should cost less than traditional, in-person classes. But less than 3% of colleges surveyed plan to reduce tuition in the fall despite the fact that most are introducing more online and hybrid courses to their catalogs.
- 39% of students only want to return to school if their college plans to take precautions, and 28% want to take only online classes. In fact, 42% of students have switched to online classes for the fall semester.
- Students care more about their education than the social aspects of college: Students are most concerned about missing out on in-person education (47%) and the ability to interact with professors (46%).
- 74% of students believe online classes are more difficult but are less educational (81%) than in-person classes, and 88% believe online classes should be cheaper.
- 31% of college students are extremely concerned about their health as a result of going back to school in the fall. Only 14% are not concerned at all.
- Students are taking social distancing seriously: Over 90% of students said they would avoid social gatherings when back at school.
- 17% of students are not confident at all in their school’s ability to enforce social-distancing measures on campus.
- Nearly 20% of students aren’t confident in their peers’ willingness to comply with social-distancing safety measures.
Students Are Stuck in Rental Agreements and Concerned About Paying Rent
The financial hurdles induced by COVID-19 have students concerned about how they’re going to afford school and other living expenses, including rent. More than 81% of students reported being concerned about their ability to pay rent in the fall semester.
Unlike a typical fall semester, 2020 brings new insecurities. Changes in dorm availability, campus closures, and other college operations have left some students unsure about returning to school.
Many projections suggested that college enrollment would drop by about 20-25% this fall. Even students who are enrolled in classes aren’t positive they’ll attend. In fact, nearly one in ten students reported not knowing where they’ll be located this semester, suggesting that they haven’t made a decision on returning to school.
Of the 100 schools surveyed, approximately 90% of universities said they’re moving classes at least partially online through hybrid courses (blended online and in-person), fully online, and limited fully in-person courses.
Others have fully remote learning for certain groups of students, meaning some students don’t have to return to the city their college is located in order to attend classes.
Roughly 31% of undergraduate students are planning to live with their parents this year, and 23% plan to live alone or with roommates away from their school.
Those who aren’t returning back to their college’s city might’ve already had a fall lease agreement in place before the impact of COVID-19 was understood, leaving them stuck trying to figure out how to get out of it.
Of the students who did have a lease for the fall, 75% attempted to be relinquished of the agreement, but only 45% were able to break it. That leaves nearly 30% of student renters stuck in leases they likely do not need or cannot afford.
Students Are Missing Out on Resume-Building Opportunities
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 5,266,000 job openings in May 2020 — down from 7,245,000 the same month last year.
The drop in job openings is most likely a result of business-operation regulations related to the coronavirus lockdowns. But it’s also possible that the overall downturn in the economy impacts job opportunities beyond the immediate future, and students are acutely aware of this possibility.
In fact, 71% of students said they believe COVID-19 will impact their ability to begin their careers after college.
It’s not just the lack of job opportunities that’s concerning to students, though. Many are worried about the resume-building opportunities they’re missing out on now as a result of precautionary measures and lockdowns. Students are unable to participate in many in-person activities typically available during college — many of which can be leveraged when searching for a job after graduation.
One analysis of more than 95,000 randomly sampled jobs indicated that more than 60% of entry-level positions required some experience. Astonishingly, the typical experience required for those positions was three years. It’s not surprising, then, that college students are concerned about gaining experience while they’re still in school.
Students reported being most concerned about future career prospects as a result of:
- Losing out on internships (44%)
- Networking events (41%)
- Relationships with faculty and other students (38%)
- Relevant job opportunities (38%).
Students Struggle to Keep or Find Jobs to Pay for School
The stereotypical image of a broke college student microwaving 85 cent ramen noodles for the umpteenth meal in a row isn’t all that far from reality: More than half of full-time undergraduates earn less than $5,000 a year, according to the Urban Institute, which hardly covers tuition, much less living expenses.
The Urban Institute also reports that more than 60% of students have a part-time or full-time job to help cover expenses, and nearly a third of all full-time undergraduates work more than 22 hours a week. This year, however, layoffs and the drastic decrease in job availability has impacted working students’ ability to afford necessities.
Of the students in our sample who had a job this year, over half reported losing a full-time (25%) or part-time (31%) job as a result of COVID-19.
Students haven’t just lost jobs; 55% also reported struggling to find a new job to help cover expenses in the fall semester. Reasons students are struggling to find a job include:
- Lack of jobs in their area (56%)
- Students don’t know where they’ll be living in the fall (17%)
- Students are not getting offers (14%)
- Students don’t feel qualified for the jobs that are available near them (13%)
2020 students (20%) are dramatically less likely to have a part-time job to help cover expenses than students surveyed in 2019 (55%), likely due to the lack of prospects.
Parents Are Losing Their Jobs, Impacting Students’ Finances
Over one-third of college costs are paid for by students’ parents, according to Sallie Mae. About half of that money comes from parents’ income (as opposed to savings or loans).
That reliance on parents’ income was similar for those in our sample of students: 34% said they’re relying on money from parents to help pay for school and expenses in the fall, but that income is far from guaranteed in the current economic climate. About 38% of those who expected some financial assistance from parents said their parent(s)’ loss of income has impacted their ability to pay for college or expenses.
About one-third of students are planning on using some scholarship or grant money to help offset expenses this fall, as well. Some (32%) of those students are worried their scholarship or grant money will be rescinded due to changes at the university level, like a switch to all online courses.
With fewer traditional job opportunities, less money coming in from family, and the potential for lost scholarship money, 48% of students are worried they won’t be able to pay their tuition this year. And students are coming up with creative ways to help pay for school. More specifically, some have opted to:
- Work delivery gigs (like DoorDash or Instacart; 10.2%)
- Sell blood or plasma (9.7%)
- Drive for Uber or Lyft (8.3%)
- Participate in paid medical studies (5.7%)
- Live out of a car/van to save (5.4%)
- Airbnb/rent out their apartment (4.1%)
Job Losses Lead to Increased Debt
Students borrowed approximately $106.2 billion during the 2018-2019 academic year (including student and personal loans), and many are upping their debt this year due to a lack of financial security leading into the fall semester.
While the proportion of students who take on student loans to help pay for college is similar to a study we conducted last year (~48%), students report borrowing more for the upcoming school year as a result of the coronavirus.
Nearly half of students who borrowed for college are borrowing more this year, 33% of whom said they’re borrowing an additional $10,000 compared to last year.
Student loans aren’t the only way college students are accumulating additional debt this year. They’re also taking on credit card debt (23%), personal loans from financial institutions (21%) and family (18%), and using payday loan services (7.6%).
Students Are Worried About the Quality of Their Education
In a typical recession, demand for higher education increases as people opt to return to or begin college while job prospects are low. The current job market and economy, while recessed, hasn’t followed that same pattern because physical distance is the key to ensuring people’s health and safety — and packed college classrooms, dorms, and cafeterias can easily transmit a highly contagious respiratory disease like the novel coronavirus.
In order to afford continued education, colleges are making significant changes to their campuses, classrooms, and course formats come fall. Although nearly 30% of college students enrolled in at least one online course each semester before COVID-19, students are wary of shifting to all or mostly online courses.
In fact, 72% of students want to return to campus in the fall.
The uncertainty about the fall semester and shift toward online courses has students concerned about their education. One in four said they’re extremely concerned about their ability to perform well in their courses compared to a “normal” semester.
Only 34% of students said they’re moderately or extremely confident that their college can provide the same quality of education as they had in previous years. Part of that lack of confidence stems from their beliefs about online courses: 74% think online courses are more difficult and provide a subpar education (81%) compared to in-person courses.
Nearly 90% of students agreed that online courses should cost less than traditional, in-person classes. But our investigation into 100 colleges across the U.S. indicated very few (~3%) plan to reduce tuition in the fall despite the fact that most are introducing more online and hybrid courses to their catalogs.
Contrary to students’ desires, more colleges (4%) are planning to increase tuition this year as a result of COVID-19 than are planning to decrease.
Aside from the perceived disadvantages of an online-heavy course load, students are concerned with other missed opportunities during a pandemic-laden semester. In particular, students reported concerns about not being able to interact with professors (46%).
Contrary to stereotypical undergraduate interests, most students reported being more concerned about missing out on educational opportunities than social ones: 47% were worried about missing out on an in-person education, and only about 25% were missing sporting events and not being able to participate in sports, teams, or clubs on campus.
Nearly 30% are also wary of the possibility that their courses could take a sharp turn mid-way through the semester, similar to spring when many colleges went fully remote after spring break.
Students Are Unsure Colleges Can Ensure Student Health
College students are concerned about their health when returning to campus, as most activities in college require some physical closeness.
In fact, 31% of students said they’re extremely concerned about their health as a result of going back to school, while only about 14% said they weren’t concerned at all.
Health concerns have students questioning whether they should return to school: 39% said they only want to return if their college plans to take precautionary measures, while 28% said they want to only take online courses in lieu of returning to campus.
We gathered information about precautionary measures for returning to school in the fall from 100 private and public universities across the country and found that they’re putting in an effort to ensure safety, but plans vary widely.
Approximately 90% of universities said they’re moving classes at least partially online through hybrid courses (blended online and in-person), fully online, and limited fully in-person courses in order to reduce the amount of time students are in the classroom. Only 5% of colleges reported that the majority or all of their courses will be moved online in the fall.
Moreover, 75% of the colleges we surveyed are shortening their semesters by beginning later in the semester (4%), ending earlier in the semester (67%), or both (4%).
Beyond limiting time in the classroom, colleges are also taking additional measures to ensure students aren’t inadvertently spreading the virus:
- 78% of colleges mentioned required mask-wearing on campus
- 33% said students will be required to be tested before entering campus and/or regularly throughout the year
- 29% have required symptom checks/monitoring to enter campus
- 19% are participating in contact tracing
- 9% are requiring students to quarantine before returning to campus or if they test positive.
- Other common measures include additional cleaning, social distancing throughout campus and in classrooms, and take-out food only (i.e., closed cafeterias for in-person dining)
Despite these precautionary plans, 17% of students aren’t confident at all in their college’s ability to enforce the measures, and 12% said they’re not at all confident that their university will take responsibility for ensuring student safety.
Students Trust Themselves, Not Peers, to Socially Distance
Students are just about as confident in their peers’ willingness to participate in social distancing measures as they are in their college’s ability to enforce them.
About 18% said they’re not confident at all in other students’ participation in social distancing and mask-wearing measures on campus — only 17% were extremely confident.
In contrast, the students we surveyed are confident in their own compliance: 44% reported they’re extremely likely to avoid social gatherings if campus resumes in-person classes.
We surveyed 1,000 undergraduate students in the U.S. who were enrolled in college courses during the spring/summer 2020 semesters and have enrolled for the fall 2020 semester using an online survey platform between July 23 and 26, 2020.
University data were collected by searching 100 randomly selected university sites. The colleges were all 4-year establishments, split evenly between public and private and split evenly among the four major Census regions in the United States (West, Midwest, Northeast, and South). These data were collected between July 23 and 28, 2020.