3 things colleges should know as they prepare for the new normal

Going into fall, vaccinations and information are key to keeping students physically and mentally well.
Head shot of Anne Schwichtenberg
Anne Schwichtenberg is the director of research at College Pulse.

Our nation is turning a corner in the ongoing pandemic. Vaccinations continue to be distributed with success; mask mandates are being lifted; and a sense of normalcy is well on its way toward being restored. This should be celebrated by us all, including and especially by college students who are navigating an exciting chapter in their lives.

As institutions prepare for the fall, it’s critical they consider not only whether to require students to be vaccinated to return to campus or whether masks will be mandated in certain settings, but also the tone they will set when restoring normalcy after a year that has taken a physical, emotional, and economic toll on us all.

Data from recent surveys of students enrolled in four-year institutions across the country provide a snapshot of what higher education leaders need to know about their student bodies. Here’s three things colleges can take from the findings as they make plans for the new normal.

1. Students, many of whom lost family members to COVID-19, continue to struggle with their mental health. 

Sixty-five percent of students report having “fair” or “poor” mental health amid the pandemic. This is, in part, due to the loss of friends and family to COVID-19. Four in 10 students report knowing someone who has died of COVID-19—11 percent had a family member pass away; 6 percent lost a friend; and 28 percent know someone else who died. The numbers are especially stark for Hispanic/Latinx students. Fifty-six percent of Hispanic/Latinx students know someone who died, including one-quarter who lost a family member.

As students’ mental health is worsening, nearly half say they could have used extra support from their colleges. Sixty-three percent of students who stated their mental health was “poor” and 43 percent of all students would grade their college’s response to student mental health and wellness services a “C” or lower.

Colleges should be prepared to address the past year’s impact on students’ mental and emotional health. This should guide the tone of their response to the pandemic and the recovery, as well as the resources colleges make available to their students.

2. Students are facing an information gap. 

All adults are now eligible to receive the vaccine, but not all students will take advantage of the opportunity. While college students are overwhelmingly interested in getting vaccinated if they have not already received one, for the small minority of students who are unlikely to get vaccinated, a lack of information about the vaccine is the primary hurdle to getting the vaccine. Currently, students say they receive information about vaccination from a combination of online and print news sources (28 percent), friends and family (19 percent), but only 12% of students report turning to their college for information.

Colleges should seize the opportunity to become a more prominent, neutral source for students seeking information about the vaccine. This is especially true if they plan to make vaccination a requirement for on-campus learning.

3. Most students expect—and accept—COVID-19 safety precautions will be part of returning to campus.

Regardless of how they personally feel about the vaccine, 71 percent of students believe colleges have the right to require vaccinations before students return to campus. And, vaccination requirement or not, students expect COVID-19 safety precautions in place when they return to campus in the fall. More than half of students expect to see hand sanitizing stations, students and professors wearing masks indoors, physically distanced spaces, and regular COVID-19 testing.

Students are ready to return to campus, but they also expect their health and safety to be prioritized. Colleges should meet these expectations by continuing to follow safety protocols and easing precautions only as time and progress allows.

These findings, in short, emphasize colleges must create realistic expectations about returning to normal. They are right to reclaim the fall—but they must do so with clear communication; with caution, respect, and sensitivity; and with adequate resources for all students.

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