Written by: Kristen Scatton
Published: 4/20/2021

Key Findings

  • 21% of students from households that earn less than $25,000 annually left school during the pandemic
  • 38% of students of color who left school during the pandemic did so because they could not afford tuition
  • 19% of undergraduate students say they won’t graduate on time because of pandemic-related disruptions
  • One-third of college students would attend classes exclusively online in exchange for a 10% tuition decrease

As the 2020-2021 academic year draws to a close, college students are acknowledging the short- and long-term effects of a full year of attending classes amid a pandemic.

A new survey by Intelligent.com of 600 American college students finds that online classes—one of the main strategies colleges used to reduce the spread of COVID-19—are a divisive issue, with a significant number of students saying they won’t return to college in the fall unless classes are held in-person, or that they don’t plan to return at all.

While enrollment in online classes has been rising since before COVID-19, the majority of college students still enrolled in in-person classes at least part-time. Our survey found that, prior to last March, 28% of all students attended in-person classes exclusively, 31% attended some in-person and some online classes, and 41% only attended online classes.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of students attending only online classes rose to 60%, while 33% of students say they had hybrid schedules that included in-person and online classes. Only 7% of students attended in-person classes exclusively throughout the pandemic.

As the pandemic stretched into the spring 2021 term, a significant number of students altered their education plans, with 34% of students dropping from full-time to part-time status, and 14% of students choosing not to enroll in classes altogether.

Of that group, 28% do not plan on enrolling in classes in the fall 2021 term either. Meanwhile, 34% of respondents will only return if classes are offered in-person, while 38% will enroll in classes regardless of how they are offered.

White students are slightly more likely than students of color to say they don’t plan on returning to school in the fall. Thirty percent of White students who left college in the spring 2021 term say they aren’t planning on returning, compared to 24% of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial students.

However, students of color are twice as likely as White students to say they will only return to college for the fall 2021 term if classes are offered in person, at a rate of 52% to 26%. Forty-four percent of White students plan on enrolling in classes whether they are offered in-person or online, compared to 24% of students of color.

For students who only attended classes in-person prior to the pandemic, the attrition rate is higher. Eighteen percent of students from this group did not enroll in classes during the spring term, and 37% say they have no plans to return to college this fall. Thirty-three percent will only return if classes are offered in-person.

One-fifth of low-income students suspended their studies during pandemic

When looked at from an economic perspective, our survey found that students from households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are the most likely to have taken a leave of absence from college during the spring 2021 term.

Twenty-one percent of students in this income bracket did not enroll in classes, compared to 15% of students from households where the annual income is between $25,000 and $99,999, and 8% of students from households with an annual income of over $100,000.

However, students from middle-income households ($25,000-$99,999) are more likely to say they aren’t planning on returning to college in the fall. Thirty-seven percent of students from households within this income bracket don’t intend on enrolling in fall 2021 classes, compared to 20% of students from both the lowest and the highest income brackets.

When asked for reasons why they did not enroll in classes for the spring term, 40% of low-income students cite an inability to pay tuition. Comparatively, 26% of students from middle-income households, and 20% of students from high-income households gave this as a reason why they did not enroll in spring 2021 classes.

38% of students of color who left college during pandemic could not afford tuition

A lack of financial resources is also a major reason why students of color did not enroll in classes for the spring term.

While students of different ethnicities suspended their studies at similar rates, 38% of Black, Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial students say they could not afford tuition for spring 2021 classes, compared to 24% of White students.

Students of color are also twice as likely as White students to attribute their decision to take off from school this term to a dislike of online classes, at a rate of 33% to 14%. For White students, 28% say they decided to work full-time instead of attending classes, while 26% left school to care for family members.

When looked at academically, doctoral students are the most likely to have hit pause on their education. Twenty-four percent of students in this group declined to enroll in spring 2021 classes, compared to 13% of undergraduates, and 10% of master’s students.

However, a higher percentage of master’s-level students indicate they aren’t planning on returning to school in the fall. While the anticipated attrition rate is 21% for undergraduates and 29% for doctoral students, nearly half of master’s-level students, 46%, don’t intend on enrolling in fall 2021 classes.

41% of undergrads who left school during pandemic will only return if classes are offered in-person

Among students who sat out the spring 2021 term but want to return to classes next semester, there is division. Overall, 34% of these students say they will only go back to college if classes are offered in-person, while 38% are willing to enroll regardless of whether they will take in-person or online courses.

When broken down by academic level, undergraduates are most likely to say they are holding out for in-person classes. Forty-one percent of students earning their associate’s or bachelor’s degree will only return to school if classes are offered in-person, compared to 27% of master’s-level students, and 14% of doctoral students.

The social and extracurricular aspects of college, which have been largely curtailed as a precaution against COVID-19 transmission, are a big draw for undergraduates, which explains why an in-person experience may be more important to these students. Twenty-eight percent of undergraduates say they don’t see the value in paying for college without being able to participate in social and extracurricular activities, compared to 18% of master’s students, and 7% of doctoral students. Undergraduate students are also twice as likely as post-secondary students to say they dislike online classes, by a rate of 28% to 14%.

Nearly ⅕ of undergrads will not graduate on time due to pandemic-related disruptions

Students who have remained enrolled in school throughout the pandemic have faced their own triumphs and challenges.

Forty percent of all undergraduate students say they missed out on experiential learning opportunities, like internships and student teaching, while 31% saw their overall GPAs decline. Nineteen percent of undergraduates will not graduate on time, and 19% also say they will have to repeat courses they took online. The need to repeat courses is also an issue for 24% of master’s students, and 28% of doctoral students.

Regardless of academic level, students who had to transition from all in-person classes to online classes had the biggest hurdles to overcome while staying on track academically this year. Fifty-five percent of students in this group say the quality of their education declined “greatly” or “somewhat” during the pandemic, compared to 39% of students who had previous experience with online classes.

Their rates of satisfaction with online classes are also lower than that of students who had previously enrolled in online classes. Fifty percent of students with no prior online course experience say they are “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with online classes, compared to 67% of students who had already been attending a mix of online and in-person courses.

Nearly half of students say distractions at home led to less productivity while learning remotely

Another challenge for students who made the switch from in-person to online classes is maintaining productivity levels. Since starting online classes, 28% of students say they are somewhat less productive, while 15% are much less productive.

When asked what is causing the decline in productivity, 48% of these students blamed distractions at home, such as a spouse or partner, roommates, kids, and pets. Thirty-four percent also indicate that worrying about COVID-19 led their productivity to drop, while the same percentage of respondents say a lack of communication with instructors affected their productivity.

Other top reasons cited for poor productivity are less collaboration and engagement with classmates (33%); lack of access to facilities like labs and libraries (32%), and less oversight and accountability from instructors (32%).

The good news is, the negative effects of the pandemic, and the shift to online learning are not universal. For some students, the transition had positive effects. Thirty-three percent of students who switched from all in-person to online classes say their GPA improved, while 39% say they are more productive while learning remotely.

Among the students who are more productive, 40% credit the flexibility with class attendance and study time. Another top reason cited, with 38% of respondents choosing it, is being in a more comfortable environment. Other reasons for increased productivity that garnered a significant share of responses are more time to study (35%); less social activities (31%), and fewer distractions from classmates (23%).

33% of students would attend classes exclusively online in exchange for a 10% tuition decrease

Given that the experience of switching from in-person to online classes has not been an overwhelmingly positive one for many students, it’s not surprising that many respondents are eager to get back to their classrooms.

Fifty-eight percent of these students say they want to return to all in-person learning when the pandemic is over, while 30% are open to taking a mix of in-person and online classes. Only 12% of these students want to continue taking only online classes. By comparison, 59% of students with previous online learning experience want to continue college in a hybrid format, while 31% want to return to in-person learning full-time.

However, one-third of students are willing to trade in-person classes for more cold, hard cash in their pockets. When asked if there is anything that would incentivize them to switch to online classes exclusively, 33% of students say they would do it if their schools reduced tuition by 10%. Another 17% are willing to make the switch permanent if their schools eliminated extra fees, and 14% would go remote full-time if it meant their schools offered more scholarship opportunities.

The willingness was not totally unanimous, though—5% of students say nothing would incentivize them to trade in-person learning for online classes permanently.

Methodology

The data from this report comes from an online survey created and paid for by Intelligent.com. The survey was administered by online survey platform Pollfish on April 6, 2021. We surveyed 600 American college students, including undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students aged 18 and older about the impact of the pandemic on their education, and their preferences for school attendance once the pandemic is over.

Full Survey Results

Q1. Please select your student status.

  • Undergraduate (associate’s, bachelor’s, non-degree seeking): 41%
  • Graduate (master’s, post-baccalaureate): 39%
  • Doctoral (PhD, professional degree): 11%
  • Vocational/technical certification program: 9%

Q2. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, how did you attend school?

  • All online classes: 41%
  • All in-person classes: 28%
  • Hybrid: some online classes, some in-person classes: 31%

Q3. Please select the option that best describes your class attendance since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020

  • I have only attended online classes: 60%
  • I have only attended in-person classes: 7%
  • I have attended a mix of in-person and online classes: 33%

Q4. Please select the option that best describes your current student status as of the spring 2021 term

  • I am still enrolled in classes full-time: 52%
  • I am still enrolled in classes, but switched from full-time to part-time: 34%
  • I did not enroll in classes for spring 2021: 14%

Q5. Which, if any, of the following are reasons why you did not enroll in classes for the spring 2021 term? (Please select all that apply)

  • I disliked online classes: 19%
  • I did not have the necessary technology/Internet access to attend online classes: 14%
  • I could not afford to enroll in classes: 29%
  • I chose to work full-time: 22%
  • I had physical health issues: 16%
  • I had mental health issues: 14%
  • I had to care for family members: 25%
  • I don’t see the value of paying for college without the social/extracurricular aspects: 19%
  • Other: 13%
  • None of the above: 14%

Q6. Do you plan to enroll in classes in the fall 2021 term?

  • Yes, but only if they are offered in-person: 34%
  • Yes, regardless of whether they are in-person or online: 38%
  • No: 28%

Q7. How satisfied are you with taking classes online?

  • Very satisfied: 33%
  • Somewhat satisfied: 33%
  • Neutral: 15%
  • Somewhat dissatisfied: 13%
  • Very dissatisfied: 6%

Q8. Since the start of the pandemic, how has the overall quality of your education changed?

  • Greatly improved: 24%
  • Somewhat improved: 20%
  • No change: 19%
  • Somewhat declined: 28%
  • Greatly declined: 9%

Q9. How has taking online classes impacted your education? (Please select all that apply)

  • My overall GPA has improved: 42%
  • My overall GPA has declined: 26%
  • I will need to repeat courses I took online: 22%
  • I will not graduate on-time: 16%
  • I missed out on experiential learning opportunities (internships, student teaching, study abroad, etc.): 37%
  • Other: 11%
  • None of the above: 6%

Q10. How much more or less productive are you since you began attending online classes?

  • Much more productive: 30.5%
  • Somewhat more productive: 21.5%
  • Equally as productive: 20%
  • Somewhat less productive: 19%
  • Much less productive: 9%

Q11. Which, if any, of the following are reasons why you are LESS productive when attending classes online? (Please select all that apply)

  • TV and/or streaming media: 40%
  • Distractions at home (spouse/partner, roommates, kids, pets): 50%
  • Worried about COVID-19: 36%
  • Worried about finances: 29%
  • Mental health issues (depression, general anxiety, substance use, etc.): 33%
  • Poor work-life balance: 26%
  • Less oversight/accountability from professors: 22%
  • Less collaboration/engagement with classmates: 29%
  • Lack of communication with instructors: 31%
  • Lack of access to facilities (labs, libraries, study lounges, etc.): 28%
  • Technology issues (lack of reliable Internet access, lack of hardware/software, etc.): 27%
  • Other: 7%
  • None of the above: 3%

Q12. Which, if any, of the following are reasons why you are MORE productive when attending classes online? (Please select all that apply)

  • Less social activities: 36%
  • More time to study: 45%
  • More flexibility with class attendance/study time: 43%
  • More comfortable environment: 41%
  • Fewer distractions from classmates: 28%
  • More attention from instructors: 20%
  • Improved work-life balance: 25%
  • Other: 8%
  • None of the above: 5%

Q13. How do you want to attend school once the pandemic is over?

  • All online classes: 29%
  • All in-person classes: 35%
  • A mix of online and and in-person classes: 36%

Q14. Which, if any, of the following would incentivize you to attend classes exclusively online?

  • A 10% tuition decrease: 28%
  • Paying in-state tuition rates regardless of residency: 13%
  • Elimination of extra fees: 18%
  • More scholarship opportunities: 19%
  • More pass/fail classes: 11%
  • Other: 8%
  • None of the above: 3%