Study: Majority of college students say they’re falling behind

Though colleges and universities are making strides, a newly released Canvas survey on higher education says they must do more to bridge gaps that exist
By: | September 16, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on higher education students, raising concerns about the effectiveness of education they are receiving as well as causing wide disparities in engagement among economic classes, according to a new research report from learning management system provider Canvas.

Data from the State of Student Success and Engagement in Higher Education study of more than 7,000 current students, administrators and faculty provides a less-than-stellar snapshot of the fallout:

  • 70% of college students say they are falling behind in their studies
  • 48% of students from lower economic households are four times more likely than higher income students to struggle to engage in remote learning
  • 85% say COVID-19 is the thing most impacting student success

If there are slivers of silver linings in the research, colleges and universities have become nimbler and more receptive in trying to respond to student needs. Students (50%) and administrators (60%) also have a somewhat positive view of virtual learning.

“Although 2020 has created stressful moments of transition, it has also opened up opportunities and accelerated many changes that were beginning to take place in higher education,” said Melissa Loble, Chief Customer Experience Officer at Instructure.  “Colleges and universities have become much more agile in decision-making, and we’re seeing more and more siloes breaking down. Now, more than ever, it’s critical for colleges and universities to better understand what students need to be successful and engaged.”

So what are students looking for, aside from equal access and opportunities as well as a strong education? It’s overwhelmingly workforce preparedness, say the authors of the Canvas study. Nearly 80% of students said being ready to enter the job market was top priority as they work toward graduation.

The numbers and disparities in the study

The Canvas report, issued by its parent company Instructure and commissioned by Hanover Research, was done in June to “understand how student success is defined today and how engaged students are with their education.” It also serves to look at factors that motivate students.

Though the majority of students say they believe they’re falling behind on their studies, nearly that same number (69%) say they are engaged with their classes and coursework. Even with all of the setbacks and the massive pivots being asked of them by their colleges and universities, 88% of students say they are energized when faculty and the content they deliver are compelling.

Still, results from the survey show there are barriers – outdated silos that may hinder progress and a lack of tools or infrastructure to help disseminate information and connect students to faculty and schools  – that can be discouraging. For one class of students, those in disadvantaged socioeconomic positions, the impacts can be far greater.

Only 21% of lower-income students, for example, say they feel extremely engaged in their coursework, compared with 56% of upper-income students. Of those who responded as feeling the least engaged, 65% came from the lower-economic bracket.

There are further disheartening numbers that may provide more insight into those who might be feeling left behind: 55% of lower-economic students reported having a lack of access to technology when they were in high school, and 50% reported growing up in a home with no parents.

A holistic approach

Beyond work preparedness, both students and administrators in the study were in agreement on the importance of students meeting education goals (76%) and holistic development (75%), which the authors defined as “self-discipline, communication, knowledge, and personal reflection.”

A deeper dive into the numbers, in fact, shows a lot of similarities in what is labeled as important to students and to administration. The two seemingly disparate groups were within 2 to 3 percentage points of one another in areas such as “job in the field of study to be an indicator of student success, student advancement, satisfaction with the university experience, and grade-point average.”

However, authors did point out that gaps still exist, particularly when it comes to administrators focusing on traditional standards to measure success. Some of those include student educational attainment, graduation, retention, transfer rates, minority student graduation rate, and at-risk student graduation rate. But none of them presented a more than 10% disparity and most fell within 5-6 percentage points.

So what do all the numbers mean?

The study’s authors say institutions need to continue to promote work readiness, foster faculty-student engagement and personal learning, create more equitable channels for remote and international learners and break down barriers that still exist among various socioeconomic groups.

They also need to check whether they are providing adequate career developments services … less than 40% of students believe institutions are doing enough. Providing environments and strategies where students can make relevant transitions into real-world jobs can help bridge those gaps.

Three questions Canvas provided in its global research and trends study that might be helpful for administrators to ask themselves:

  • “How can students get the educational experience they need to be successful with today’s realities?
  • How can faculty prepare for the next era of education by adopting learning models that are resilient and innovative?
  • How can institutions use this unprecedented shift as an opportunity to evolve and thrive in this new reality?”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at