Review of Student Surveys: College Enrollment and Online Learning

Cowen Institute
6 min readSep 16, 2020

Following the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, a number of universities, school districts, public bodies, and private organizations began gauging the pandemic’s possible impact on potential and current college students. The Cowen Institute reviewed 45 surveys of college students about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives. The reviewed surveys were released between March 19th and June 17th of 2020 and covered a range of topics including college enrollment, online learning, financial circumstances, mental and physical health, and school support.

This is the first in a series of posts summarizing the findings from these surveys. This post includes results from all 29 surveys reviewed that have survey questions related to college enrollment and online learning.

The individual surveys used for this review can be found in this chart.

Student Enrollment in Fall 2020

Universities across the country have expressed concerns that COVID-19 could cause large drops in college enrollment in Fall 2020. Twenty-eight surveys asked college students and high school students who intended to attend college in Fall 2020 or Fall 2021 about their college-going plans. Specifically, these surveys asked if students were considering taking time off or transferring schools as a result of COVID. Collectively, the surveys found that roughly 7% to 30% of existing and prospective college students were considering transferring or taking time off. In addition, higher percentages of students from two-year colleges, international students, students with familial responsibilities, students with disabilities, students not comfortable with online learning, and students of color said they might take time off of school or that their top choice for school had changed as a result of COVID-19.

The survey results align with data reported by colleges and universities. In Louisiana, two-year college enrollment has declined by roughly 11% since the onset of the pandemic. Most two-year colleges in other parts of the country are expected to see enrollment declines ranging from 5% to 30% according to school officials while only a handful of two-year colleges are seeing increases in enrollment. Data from four-year colleges are still largely unavailable but a review by the Brookings Institute concluded that almost every college or university in the United States is at financial risk because of loss of enrollment — particularly enrollment by international students who typically pay full-tuition and contribute substantially to universities’ tuition revenue. However, the actual impact on institutions will vary based on a number of factors including the types of degrees offered, operating revenue, out-of-state enrollment, and international student enrollment.

How do students feel about online learning?

Across 10 studies, it was found that between 50 and 75% of current college students preferred in-person learning to online learning. For example, a SimpsonScarborough study found 70% of college students surveyed said that online learning was worse than in-person instruction. In addition, only 15% of students said that they would choose to complete their degree online if given the choice between online and in-person. Students of color (18%) were more likely to say they would finish online than white students (13%).

In addition, students also strongly prefer in-person learning to a hybrid learning model (defined as a combination of online learning and in-person learning), but prefer hybrid learning over online learning. For example, one study by the University of Michigan of their students found that 53% of students reported a preference for fully face-to-face instruction, 20% preferred fully online, and 27% of students preferred a hybrid model of instruction.

Many students also had concerns about online learning. A survey of over 60,000 current college students in California who applied for financial aid found that 82% of students were concerned about taking online classes. Concern about taking online classes was the top report among students, with concerns about their personal finances (73%) and the finances of their family members (71%) following closely.

However, there are some elements of online learning that students seem to prefer. According to one survey by Ernest and Young, students like the schedule flexibility, autonomy, and comfort of being at home that comes with online learning. Another survey of college students found that those who had engaged with online learning before COVID-19 viewed it more positively than those who were engaging with online learning for the first time as a result of COVID-19. The same survey also found that around 63% of respondents believed that online learning could be improved with better technology.


It’s arguable that the results of this wave of student surveys, coupled with fears around revenue loss, prompted many universities and colleges across the country to resume in-person learning in Fall 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a comprehensive review documenting reopening models for colleges and universities. The review found that as of September 14th, roughly 23% of colleges and universities are operating primarily in-person in Fall 2020, 4% are fully in-person, 34% are operating primarily online, 10% are operating fully online, 21% are operating using a hybrid model, and 8% have not made a determination yet or are operating using a different kind of model. Four-year and two-year private colleges and universities have higher rates of in-person instruction with 38% of private colleges and universities operating primarily or fully through in-person instruction. In contrast, 23% of public colleges and universities are operating primarily or fully through in-person instruction. 48% of public colleges and universities are operating primarily or fully through online instruction and 35% of private colleges or universities are operating primarily or fully through online instruction.

Four-year and two-year private colleges and universities have higher rates of in-person instruction than public colleges and universities.

Colleges’ and universities’ decisions were likely impacted by student surveys publicly released in the spring that concluded students prefer in-person learning to online-learning and to hybrid-learning models. Colleges and universities that chose to open face many challenges, including balancing in-person classes with health concerns expressed by other students and school staff. Graduate students at the University of Michigan are striking partly because of safety concerns over in-person classes during COVID-19. Moreover, universities are also struggling to control the spread of COVID-19. The University of Wisconsin-Madison has ordered students to restrict in-person interaction to essential activities only after it reported its third consecutive day of over 100 cases. Other universities, including the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill and all State University of New York campuses, have had to cancel in-person classes entirely because of the spread of COVID-19. These changes, no doubt, negatively impact students, some of whom have had to move back home shortly after moving to campus for in-person classes. The next survey review will focus on the mental health and financial effects of COVID-19 on students.


The Cowen Institute created a Google alert with the keyword phrase “COVID student survey”. Upon receiving notifications, we then identified surveys for inclusion by one-coder. We included surveys where U.S. college students, graduate students, and K-12 students were surveyed about their post-graduate plans and experiences in relation to COVID-19 and a primary source was available. We did not include surveys where the only available source was a news article about the survey.

After surveys were marked for inclusion, two coders identified key findings from surveys, dates of administration, survey sample size, and population surveyed. Key findings were used to generate the following subtopics: College Enrollment, Online Learning, College’s Handling of COVID, Student Mental Health, Student Physical Health, and Financial Security. We categorized studies based on the subtopics they covered for this review.

Finally, we categorized surveys based on the group that administered the survey. We created the following categorizations:

  • External — Consulting: surveys conducted by a consulting group external to the college or university.
  • External — Nonprofit: surveys conducted by a nonprofit group external to the college or university.
  • Internal — Universities: surveys conducted by the college or university
  • Internal — Org within the school: surveys conducted by individual organizations (like school newspapers) within a school
  • Other federal, state, or local government: A government agency



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