In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, a group of researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) surveyed students at that school to determine the impact of Covid-19 on their current and future plans—including their enrollment decisions, study habits, remote learning experiences, labor market participation, and more. The results, published in a recent NBER working paper, show a dark cloud descending upon many students’ sense of their future.
Analysts surveyed over 1,400 ASU undergraduate students online in late April. The campus was closed in early March, and all classes transitioned to online learning following the conclusion of spring break. ASU is a large and diverse university, which makes the findings relevant for other large public institutions in the U.S. That said, there are several caveats. Compared to students in other flagship universities, their sample had higher scores on the SAT and ACT, which is likely explained by a higher percentage of honors students participating in the survey. It also has a higher proportion of first-generation students and a smaller proportion of international students than the ASU population as a whole. Finally, the survey was administered on a “first come, first served basis” since funding prevented any more than 1,500 students from receiving the $10 dollar incentive to complete the survey.
The somewhat unique aspect of the survey is that it consistently asks students about their perceived outcomes, both in light of Covid-19 and without it. For instance: “What semester level GPA do you expect to get at the end of the semester?” Then: “Were it not for Covid-19, what semester GPA would have you expected to get at the end of the semester?” Analysts say this approach allows them to calculate an “individual level subjective treatment effect” of Covid-19, which is basically the difference between the two responses.
On average, the academic outcomes are mostly negative. Overall, more than 50 percent of students expect some decrease in their GPA due to Covid-19. Specifically, the average subjective treatment effect of Covid-19 on semester GPA is a decline of 0.17 points. In addition, 13 percent of the sample delayed their graduation, 11 percent withdrew from at least one class during the spring semester, and 12 percent stated their choice of major was impacted by Covid-19. In terms of weekly study hours, the average treatment effect of Covid-19 meant a decline of 0.9 hours spent studying per week.
As for labor market outcomes, on average 29 percent of students lost the jobs they held prior to the pandemic (67 percent reported working prior to the pandemic), 13 percent had their internships or job offers rescinded, and 61 percent reported that a close family member had lost their job or experienced an income reduction. In terms of labor market expectations, on average students expect a 13 percentage point decrease in their probability of finding a job by graduation and a 2.3 percent decrease in their expected earnings at age thirty-five—more than fiteen years hence—due to Covid-19.
As for heterogeneous effects, low-income students, first generation college students, and racial minorities experience larger negative impacts, with the biggest differences appearing for low income students—who are 55 percent more likely to delay graduation due to Covid-19 and expect 30 percent larger negative effects to their GPA, as compared to their more affluent peers. First generation students are 50 percent more likely to delay their graduation than students with college-educated parents.
Interestingly, the switch to online learning was harder for men, who were 7 percentage points less likely to opt for an online version of a course when the in-person class was cancelled. Students in ASU’s honors college were also less enamored with online learning—qualitative evidence showed they felt less challenged in that format—but they were nonetheless able to mitigate the negative effects because they were less than half as likely as non-honors college students to delay graduation or change their major.
Finally, analysts show that economic and health related shocks induced by the pandemic vary by socioeconomic status and may partly explain the large heterogenous effects. These are things like whether a family member lost a job or income, or whether a student fears that they may contract Covid-19 themselves. For example, they find that the change in the expected probability of finding a job before graduation strongly depends on whether a family member lost income. So their perceptions are shaped by their family’s experiences, not only their own college experience.
Undergraduates surveyed in early April of 2020 had plenty of reason to be gloomy at that time. Of course, data are still to come on whether college GPAs actually declined—and how any realized declines stem from Covid-19 and/or its relationship to pass/fail grading or other lowered classroom standards. Moreover, the economic hit borne by today’s collegians could take years to manifest.
For now, a new school year has already begun at colleges and universities across the country—some fully online and some with hybrid in-person models. How those institutions and their students respond to ongoing pandemic challenges will largely determine whether bleak initial assessments come true or whether the crystal ball was clouded more by early shocks than by certain doom.
SOURCE: Esteban M. Aucejo, Jacob F. French, Maria Paola Ugalde Araya, and Basit Zafar, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Experiences and Expectations: Evidence from a Survey,” NBER Working Paper #27392 (June 2020).