Since early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has posed serious challenges to individuals and institutions globally. Academic life has been dramatically changed, as universities and colleges replaced traditional in-person learning with virtual classrooms or hybrid models. Many students had to leave residential campuses, which disrupted their academic and social lives. Continuous lockdowns and stay-at-home orders triggered anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, and cuts in campus support, contributing to financial insecurity for most learners. Disparities in enrollment and completion rates deepened during the pandemic period, as opportunities for minority students declined. This paper examines the extent of the pandemic’s effects on various aspects of college students’ lives, including their academics, mental health, and financial insecurity outcomes.
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Impact on Students’ Academics
The rapid spread of coronavirus may have jeopardized academic progress in colleges and universities. Many governments implemented strict containment measures to curb transmissions that posed a risk to healthcare systems. Such actions included movement restrictions, isolations for those arriving from hotspot areas, school closures, secure physical distance, limited business hours, lockdowns, and stay-at-home orders (Gostin and Wiley 2138). These measures impacted college education negatively, especially when campuses moved to online instruction to limit instructor-student contact. Most institutions did not have a virtual learning infrastructure, which affected the continued learning after the shift.
One area that was affected by the pandemic-related college closures is learning and achievement. Online classrooms through videoconferencing apps such as Zoom were developed to support virtual learning (Gostin and Wiley 2137). They were deemed to be an effective alternative to in-person learning that was no longer tenable under the pandemic situation. However, many countries faced a challenge implementing this new strategy due to issues of limited access, cost, flexibility, and pedagogical methods (Pokhrel and Chhetri 136). Unstable connectivity and inadequate digital devices also made learning impossible for students, especially in the developing world.
The impact of these challenges on student learning experiences has been significant. Academic performance is predicted to decline because of insufficient contact hours with instructors when struggling to understand key concepts (Sintema 6). Learners are now being assessed virtually, a new approach that may be prone to mistakes and uncertainty and may disadvantage those with poor computer skills. Further, frustration, anxiety, and increased absenteeism by vulnerable students struggling with lost livelihoods also contributed to their low educational attainment (Sintema 7). Thus, the lockdowns affected the learning opportunities and experiences of many students.
Cancelation of examinations also impacted negatively students’ academic achievement and progress. The unprecedented college and university closures disrupted assessment methods and schedules for exams offered by national professional institutions; for example, entry exams (SAT) were suspended in most U.S. universities (Pokhrel and Chhetri 137). As universities adjusted to the new learning environment and assessment approaches, plagiarism became problematic. Opportunistic online tutors could illegally sit exams for students without detection (Sintema 4). This practice threatens quality standards and the expertise needed in the industry.
The rescheduling or dropping of entry tests has also affected enrollment rates. The abrupt changes in admission dates contributed to a reduction in the number of new students enrolling in colleges. According to Pokhrel and Chhetri, college enrollment rates for high school graduates (18-20 years) declined by 7% nationally in 2020 compared to 2019. Prospective students cited high costs and location as the main reasons for deferred admissions.
Community colleges have experienced low enrollment and a drop in low-income students. The retention rate for learners with caregiving responsibilities was also consistently low. Aristovnik et al. found that student caregivers faced many challenges such as financial constraints, stress, and limited access to food during the pandemic. They included undergraduates taking care of their children or ill parents. The demands of the caregiving role forced them to sacrifice their academic goals to cater to more urgent family needs. Some learners from low-income households and students of color dropped out or failed to enroll at all. In 2020, enrollment declined more sharply for Hispanic students (18%) and African American females (26%) and males (35%) than whites (17%) (Aristovnik et al. 8). These statistics indicate that the pandemic disproportionately affected access to college education.
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Increased Financial and Food Insecurity
For financial reasons, many learners had to defer their college plans to a later date or discontinue their education during the pandemic. Increased deferrals raise the possibility that those students may not complete their academic programs on time. The financial constraints are an outcome of mass job losses due to pandemic effects on various sectors of the economy. According to the Department of Education, 43% of college students were employed full-time, while 80% of them were working part-time. However, after the pandemic hit, most of these learners lost their employment, which affected their ability to finance or complete their degrees. Further, institutions of higher learning nationally dismissed about 650,000 employees in 2020, with most of them being students (Department of Education). The cancelation of on-campus jobs affected their ability to pay for college education.
The pandemic-related job losses also heightened the students’ financial concerns and insecurity. Lost opportunities created economic strains on college students, including those with educational loans, affecting their livelihoods and repayment capacity (McCoy et al.). The financial constraints were particularly severe among low-income groups in America. Students from minority families, including Blacks and Hispanics, faced challenges accessing food, shelter, and the internet for online learning (Sintema 6). The pandemic’s disproportionate effect on minority students, as they experienced difficulties meeting basic needs. In addition, transitioning to distance learning was a problem due to limited access to digital devices and the internet. The vulnerability affected their capacity to complete coursework, leading to poor academic outcomes.
The financial constraints contributed to food insecurity in campuses dominated by low-income students. Aristovnik et al. state that over 35 million people in the U.S. experienced food insecurity in 2019, but this number doubled after the pandemic hit the country. As a consequence, accessing adequate food was a challenge for most households. Among the groups most affected by the food crisis were students in universities because of persistent and unaddressed nutritional needs. The Department of Education further notes that though the Supplemental Assistance Program covers this population, it is about to be terminated. Thus, many vulnerable college students will be left with fewer options for food.
Before the pandemic struck, a significant number of students were food insecure. However, since 2020, this population has grown exponentially, with racial minorities being the most affected. It is estimated that 38% of college students studying two-year programs have been food insecure over the past month, up from 30% before the pandemic (Baker-Smith et al. 51). This report also found that the most affected group includes minority students. Specifically, 75% of Native American and 70% of African American students were struggling to feed themselves during the pandemic, compared to 53% of White college-age persons. A key reason for the food insecurity included the absence of food assistance after campuses were closed down. In addition, unemployment was more prevalent among people 18-24 years (Department of Education 62). Therefore, characteristics, such as low-income status, joblessness, and minority background enhanced the susceptibility of students to food insecurity.
Financial, housing, and food insecurities coupled with anxiety affected student achievement during the pandemic. According to McCoy et al., food-insecure learners are likely to record poor grades because of poor class attendance. They are also prone to poor physical and psychological health outcomes due to depression and consumption of cheaper, unhealthy food options. Food-insecure students face a high risk of obesity that impacts their self-esteem and educational outcomes (Department of Education). Therefore, without adequate federal responses, financial and food insecurities are bound to persist, affecting success in college.
Effect on Mental Health
The coronavirus pandemic and related containment measures have been linked to poor mental outcomes. In the US, the number of people seeking help for anxiety-related disorders increased by 1000% during the lockdowns (Gijzen et al. 9). Thus, the pandemic affected the mental health outcomes of individuals, partly due to job losses and social isolation. Death by suicide and substance rose exponentially after March 2020, with socially and economically disadvantaged groups being most affected (Browning et al. 8). College students are a vulnerable population predisposed to poor mental health outcomes during the pandemic.
Students globally were forced to return home or shift to online learning following college closures. An immediate impact of this change was heightened anxiety and uncertainty about educational success, career prospects, and lost socialization opportunities (Aristovnik et al. 16). As a result, they experienced psychological problems, substance abuse, and sometimes suicidal ideation requiring professional services that were availed through dedicated hotlines. The anxiety and stress were linked to social isolation, loneliness, boredom, and sedentary lifestyles (Huckins et al. 13). In addition, the lockdowns reduced opportunities for interpersonal interaction and physical activity and promoted eating disorders, including binge drinking increased during this period.
Several factors could account for the poor mental health outcomes among college students during the pandemic. Browning et al. identified comorbid conditions as a key risk factor for psychological disorders in this population. The authors explain that reduced preparedness for disasters meant that such individuals were likely to be more affected by the pandemic than older demographics. Students aged 18 to 24 years exhibit elevated anxiety about their academic success, career, and capacity to finance their education (Aristovnik et al. 11). The level of exposure to pandemic-related stories is high among college students than older individuals. Since coronavirus was a dominant topic on social media channels, heavy users of these platforms were likely to be exposed to risk-elevating information, fuelling their anxiety (Browning et al. 12). Thus, excessive exposure to negative messages regarding pandemic-related morbidity and mortality affected the psychological outcomes of this vulnerable population.
The psychological effects of coronavirus on college students were exacerbated by limited outdoor time during the pandemic. Opportunities for outdoor recreation diminished following the implementation of lockdowns and travel restrictions in different countries. Browning et al. found that increased screen time due to stay-at-home orders negatively impacted the students’ mental health. Conversely, outdoor activities may have a protective effect on stressors that affect the psychological outcomes of individuals. However, social gatherings and interactions were banned during the pandemic, reducing recreational opportunities that improve the students’ psychosocial wellbeing.
As aforementioned, the COVID-19 pandemic occasioned an unprecedented economic crisis globally, with vulnerable groups, such as low-income groups and those living with disabilities, being disproportionately affected. The main root causes of this problem were the measures taken to curb its spread. Ellis et al. note that lockdowns, movement restrictions, and other actions taken to stop COVID-19 transmissions caused unemployment and loneliness, which contributed to poor psychological outcomes, especially among adolescents. These public health interventions were also a barrier to accessing mental healthcare by individuals in need of such services.
Poor psychological outcomes were reported at the height of the coronavirus crisis. In the U.S., the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the adult population rose to 40% from the pre-pandemic rate of 10% (Panchal et al. para. 6). This exponential increase is attributed to economic and social disruptions caused by the pandemic. In addition, insomnia, unhealthy eating habits, binge drinking, and drug abuse increased among adolescents as a way of coping with anxiety (Panchal et al. para. 17). Young people were particularly affected, given their vulnerability to substance abuse. It is estimated that 56% of college-age individuals (18-24 years old) struggled with depression and anxiety syndromes and were more than twice as likely to engage in drug abuse and suicidal ideation as older adults (Department of Education). Therefore, the pandemic exacerbated the risk factors for poor psychological health among adolescents.
Increased Substance Use Disorders
College-age individuals faced various stressors unique to this group during the pandemic. Puberty is a vulnerable life phase in which the risk of drug abuse is high. The anxiety and boredom experienced by people aged between 18 and 24 years during the pandemic drove many young people into substance use as a coping strategy (Aristovnik et al. 12). For students, on-campus job cuts by colleges disrupted their livelihoods and social lives and caused depression. Many adolescents experiencing psychological distress are likely to abuse drugs and develop substance use disorders. Therefore, binge drinking and the use of narcotics and sedatives by students grew exponentially during the pandemic.
Vulnerability to illicit drug use is a notable effect of coronavirus on college students. The pandemic impacted each demographic differently, but young people faced a higher risk of substance use disorders than older adults (Dumas et al. 360). College closures and movement restrictions contributed to anxiety and made students vulnerable to solitary drug abuse. This effect was particularly pronounced among those with caregiving responsibilities as parents or guardians. It is estimated that 27% of young people with parental roles experienced chronic depressive symptoms and were likely to engage in binge drinking primarily due to lost employment (Dumas et al. 361). A secondary cause is disrupted social life and lifestyle after lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were implemented.
Two factors explain the inordinate levels of drug use among college students during the pandemic. First, depression and anxiety were exacerbated by stay-at-home orders. As a result, many students were confronted with increased parental supervision like never before (Panchal et al. para. 12). In addition, they experienced isolation from friends and boredom, increasing their vulnerability to solitary drug use to cope with the changes in their social and academic lives. Second, college closures and the rapid shift to online learning limited extracurricular opportunities, which have protective psychological effects (Browning et al. 15). As a result, idle students were vulnerable to illicit drug use in their homes.
Some research evidence suggests that the pandemic had a protective effect on illicit drug use. Chaffee et al. note that the banning of social events reduced opportunities for engaging in risky practices such as substance use. Peer interaction was minimized by the lockdowns, which increased parental supervision and limited the students’ involvement in drug abuse. In addition, access to illicit drugs during the pandemic was difficult because of travel restrictions. The reduced availability of narcotics may have also contributed to a decline in substance use among students (Chaffee et al. 5). Thus, parental involvement in cessation programs is critical to curbing drug abuse by college students.
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Comparing the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic prevalence of substance use in the coronavirus will help determine the protective effect of coronavirus. A cross-sectional study of Canadian students reported a drop in e-cigarette and marijuana consumption during the pandemic (Dumas et al. 359). In addition, binge drinking among these students decreased, while others reported quitting smoking. These findings suggest that increased parental supervision and decreased peer interaction during the pandemic positively impacted substance use among college students.
Social and Emotional Impacts of Coronavirus
Coronavirus affected the social and emotional facets of people’s lives significantly. On the positive side, the pandemic provided students with opportunities to connect with their parents and siblings (Aristovnik et al. 2). The stay-at-home orders meant that people spent hours indoors with their families, which strengthened relationships. Social and religious holidays were celebrated under lockdowns with close family members. This situation encouraged socialization, collective prayers, reunions, and bonding between students and their parents.
In most cases, the pandemic negatively impacted the students’ social and emotional wellbeing. Increased concerns about being a burden on parents or guardians were reported by unemployed college students (Department of Education). The anxiety associated with loneliness and social isolation also led to poor emotional states such as anger and frustration. In families with elderly relatives, the students were overburdened with caregiving roles as an obligation (Browning et al. 11). Those caring for relatives infected with coronavirus were particularly vulnerable to poor emotional outcomes. College students were also worried about the possibility of infecting elderly family members with the deadly virus.
Effect on Spiritual and Societal Aspects
Coronavirus was associated with a spike in morbidity and mortality globally. It ravaged families and caused pain and grief that transformed people’s perception of life and death (Browning et al. 2). These negative impacts also forced students to reorganize priorities in their lives. Caring for critically ill relatives, some of whom succumbed to the virus, influenced young people to appreciate life and family (Department of Education 16). The despair that was associated with coronavirus complications and death drove many into seeking spiritual intervention.
The stay-at-home orders and the shift to online learning meant that people had a limited need for physical movement. Increased use of digital devices to work or study remotely helped reorganize many students’ priorities during the pandemic. Traditional physical meetings and interactions became virtual, forcing young people to explore new opportunities for connecting online and entertaining themselves (Department of Education 40). These trends increased the need for solidarity, positively impacting the societal facet of the students’ lives. It enhanced the global community connectedness in the face of hardships occasioned by the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic also impacted the environmental facet of people’s lives. Public health guidelines promoted hand hygiene and sterilization of living spaces to curb community transmission of the virus (Browning et al. 4). Governments conducted huge sanitation campaigns in public areas reporting high infection rates, such as markets, schools, and offices. The media messages about maintaining a hygienic environment, wearing masks, and social distancing became more common than before. As a result, students were influenced to keep a clean environment, contributing to the collective effort of curbing transmissions.
Impact of Online Study
College closures after the coronavirus outbreak were followed by a shift to remote learning. Videoconferencing applications such as Zoom, Discussion Boards, and Google Teams were adopted by campuses as tools for instruction and learning during the pandemic (Department of Education). Classes and pedagogic activities were designed to make them as closely similar to physical classrooms as possible. The primary aims were to enhance student engagement, access to learning materials, and interaction with instructors. However, the social environment in physical classrooms could not be replicated perfectly in the online platforms (Brown para. 2). Thus, peer and student-instructor interactions that are crucial for effective mentorship were affected by the transition.
The students’ social presence was largely lacking in virtual classrooms. In addition, online study limited the capacity of instructors to assess the preparedness of students and provide key resources and support for struggling learners (Brown para. 6). Thus, the virtual environment may not give optimal learning experiences as physical classrooms do. However, according to Sintema, the various communication channels provided during the pandemic supported positive interactions between students and teachers. In this regard, enhancing online contact or collaboration was the main advantage of virtual classrooms.
Various technologies were deployed to support interactions and ensure quality learning experiences. Throughout the lockdown period, videoconferencing applications became the primary means rather than supportive tools for distance learning (Department of Education). They included features that support peer collaboration and replicate classroom conditions as much as possible. In this regard, virtual study enhanced social interactions in ways physical learning did not. Students could ask each other questions, reply to posts, and give their perspectives on various topics on discussion boards.
The positive impact of the online study mode on student interactions depends on the quality of the infrastructure for online learning. In a survey of 432 American college students, more than 50% of them reported that interactions in online educational platforms were absent, with another 12% complaining about slow internet in their homes (Brown para. 5). These findings suggest that the quality of the infrastructure provided for online study influenced how students perceived the system as supporting their interactions with peers and instructors. Virtual education negatively impacted practical learning (Brown para. 8). Some courses that require practicum experiences may not be offered online given the limited capabilities of the current technologies.
Impact on Students with Disabilities
Coronavirus had disproportionate impacts on students living with disabilities (SLWDs) in colleges. They encountered significant barriers that affected access to learning resources and basic provisions. SLWDs constitute about 19% of the students at the undergraduate level (Department of Education). This population faced major hardships trying to adjust to the pandemic-related restrictions that disrupted life on campus. Persistent barriers have contributed to disparities in academic outcomes for SLWDs, which were exacerbated by the pandemic. Before coronavirus struck, SLWDs did not have adequate accommodation, responsive classroom and instructional resources, and supportive on-campus programs (Sintema 9). They also faced prejudice and negative interactions with other students on the academic and extracurricular fronts.
These challenges became more pronounced during the pandemic, with new barriers appearing. Transitioning to online study was more challenging to SLWDs than non-disabled students (Department of Education). They struggled with reporting the nature of their disability for special support to be availed. In addition, because of their vulnerability, SLWDs were disproportionately affected by coronavirus. The financial impact of the pandemic was particularly significant; SLWDs needed more resources and support to learn remotely than non-disabled students did.
Social isolation, especially among SLWDs, was exacerbated by the pandemic. For these students, feelings of belongingness to the campus community declined, with some of them raising concerns about the lack of the needed support (Department of Education). SLWDs were also more food insecure than non-disabled students during the pandemic because of the significant financial hardships they faced. Those diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder could not stay focused and complete assigned projects within their home environment (Sintema 7). In addition, students with depressive syndromes faced greater solitude during the pandemic. SLWDs were also prone to anxiety disorders because of the confusion surrounding the transition to online study.
SLWDs are a highly vulnerable population both economically and socially. During the pandemic, SLWDs were more likely to be laid off (47%) than non-disabled students (26%) (Department of Education 50). This trend means that coronavirus had a severe financial impact on SLWDs. Their expenditure on technology also grew exponentially because the learning aids and supports on campus were lacking at home. More importantly, the rapid college closures forced SLWDs to move to less secure living spaces in their communities. Therefore, they were at risk of physical or emotional abuse during the pandemic.
Widening Disparities for Minority Students during the Pandemic
Although the pre-pandemic race-based gaps existed in access to college education, these disparities have increased during the pandemic. Disparate effects are evident in deaths and socioeconomic costs of coronavirus between majority and minority students. It is estimated that parents of over 37,300 children succumbed to the disease nationally by January 2021; 20% of them were African Americans (Department of Education 11). These statistics show that minority students were faced an inordinate amount of grief and depression, which may have affected their learning.
Small businesses, which are dominated by minority workers, were the first ones to close down during the pandemic. Lost incomes exposed Black and Latinx households to food insecurity and homelessness (Department of Education 28). Thus, minority students faced a greater risk of being homeless and going without food due to the pandemic compared to their white peers. These challenges show that coronavirus had worse socioeconomic impacts on students of color.
While the pandemic had significant psychological effects on the population, there were racial disparities in access to mental health care. According to Brown, minority students highly depend on their campuses for psychological or counseling services. Therefore, college closures meant that such individuals could not access the mental health care resources that they need. This scenario exposed students of color to poor psychosocial outcomes compared to their white peers that could receive such services within their community.
The pandemic also exacerbated disparities in access to education and learning experiences. In-person teaching was replaced with online study during the pandemic. Financial constraints occasioned by coronavirus affected the ability of minority students to invest in the technology required for participation in distance learning (Department of Education). They were less likely to enroll in a program due to technological barriers, affecting their academic progress and achievement. The technology gap also resulted from limited access to reliable internet by minority students (Brown para. 7). Thus, federal funding to schools and colleges was increased to reduce this disparity.
Impact on Sexual Minorities
A college is a place where students express their sexuality overtly. Those who identify themselves as lesbian or gay face significant barriers while on the campus. The pandemic may have exacerbated some of these challenges, affecting the educational outcomes of this population. Campuses are an important source of psychological services for sexual minority students; therefore, college closures predisposed them to poor mental health outcomes (Ellis 182). As individuals in the early stages of sexual identity formation, they faced the possibility of rejection by family members upon returning home.
The poor mental outcomes disparately affected the academic performance and social lives of sexual minorities. According to the Department of Education, one-third of LGBTQ students indicated that their social relationships with heterosexual individuals deteriorated during the pandemic. This outcome was aggravated by the absence of mental health services tailored for their needs, which led to persistent depressive symptoms. The poor social relationships subjected LGBTQ youth to isolation and loneliness.
Stay-at-home orders heightened the mental health burden of minority students. The primary reason for this outcome is the unavailability of supportive sexuality alliances, friends, instructors, and counselors that would ameliorate the feelings of seclusion (Brown para. 6). Hostility from relatives could also have impacted the mental health outcomes of LGBT students negatively. They could not express their sexuality openly and lived in stressful and unsupportive home environments during the pandemic. Further, most online learning platforms did not include counseling or support services to students learning remotely, resulting in worse outcomes for LGBT youth.
Reduced sense of security in the community could have also impacted the mental health of sexual minority students. The risk of harassment or threat of harm on LGBTQ youth raised safety concerns, even in the pre-pandemic period (Browning et al. 13). With college closures, the students were likely to experience hostility and violence from conservative members of the community. In addition, homelessness may arise when LGBTQ youth run away from their homes to avoid victimization and aggression.
This research has examined various effects of the coronavirus on college students. This vulnerable group was disproportionately affected directly by the pandemic and indirectly through the interventions taken to curb transmissions. In particular, college closures and the shift to online study had a major impact on the academic, social, and economic aspects of the students’ lives. They experienced poor mental health outcomes, anxiety, and depression compared to the pre-pandemic period. These effects were more pronounced among racial and sexual minorities and SLWDs.
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