Many college students worried about return to classes

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Students enrolling in college for the 2020-21 school year are facing a very different set of circumstances than ever before. With the coronavirus pandemic still surging across the U.S., many colleges have delayed reopening for the new semester and instead, are sticking with online learning. Other schools plan to hold in-person classes, but with social distancing and other safety measures in place.

But are students willing to head back to campus? According to the findings of the latest Student Loan Hero survey, 1 in 3 students do feel ready to return. But an even greater number (about 45%) said they would prefer to take classes online, and the majority of students want a tuition discount for this new model of remote learning.

Here’s what we found from our survey of 1,050 full-time college students.

Key findings

  • Just over a third — 34% — of college students will return to campus and attend class in-person this fall if given the option. Another 16% still plan to return to campus, but will take courses online, while roughly 29% plan to study online from home.
  • Almost 66% of students feel strongly that they should receive tuition breaks, as they consider remote learning to be of lower quality than in-person classes. Unfortunately, only about 21% said their school has offered such a discount.
  • Just over 46% of student workers are very concerned they won’t be able to work during the fall semester.
  • Overall, students’ primary concern is avoiding the coronavirus. The next two major worries on the list were not learning as much due to online classes and not having the college experience they wanted in terms of social life and extracurriculars.

45% of college students plan to take classes online

An increasing number of colleges are offering students a choice of online or in-person classes, and 45% of the college students we polled said they plan to take classes online in the upcoming semester.

Specifically, 29% of respondents planned to study at home, while close to 16% said they would return to campus but take their courses online. However, 34% said they would return to campus and attend class in-person if given the option.

Some colleges are also offering a hybrid option, allowing students to take part of their courses online and attending others in-person but with smaller class sizes. Students may appreciate this flexibility, as they were split on how they want to learn.

When asked about their approach to learning in an ideal world, 37% said they would prefer all their classes in person, close to 23% wanted all classes online and 31% said they favored a hybrid model. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, few students appear to be rethinking their college plans. Only 3% of students we polled said they plan to take the semester or year off.

An additional 2% of students surveyed had decided to transfer to a school closer to home, while another 3% said they were switching to a community college or other less expensive alternative.

Meanwhile, roughly 14% weren’t sure yet about their plans for the upcoming semester. As many college policies are still in flux, these students may be waiting to see what to expect before deciding.

2-in-3 students want a tuition discount for online learning

While many students plan to take advantage of online learning options this fall, they don’t necessarily think their courses should cost as much as in-person classes. In total, almost 66% of students think remote classes are of lower quality than those held in person, and that tuition costs should be reduced accordingly.

Students who attended a private four-year college felt even more strongly about tuition breaks for remote learning (76% in favor) than their peers who attended a public university or a community college (67% and 64%, respectively).

Such discounts appear to be rare, at least so far. Only about 1 in 5 students said their college offered a price cut for the fall 2020 semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most students (59%) said their colleges did not reduce costs at all for the 2020-21 year, while the remainder weren’t sure. Nearly half of students worried about finding a job this fall

Many students work to put themselves through college, but job opportunities might be thin this semester. Among respondents, around 46% said they were very concerned about finding employment in the fall and needed that income to pay bills.

An additional 39% of those expressing concern said they relied on their wages for spending money throughout the semester.

Overall, respondents who owe student loans were more likely to worry about their ability to work, by 55% versus 38%.

Increased difficulty in finding work might be why 12% of students surveyed said they would have to take on more student debt than usual to tackle the pandemic’s impact on their financial situation.

On the other hand, an almost equal 11% said they would take on less debt because the pandemic has reduced their school-related expenses.

Some students are rethinking their majors, career goals

Just as the pandemic transformed the way colleges are operating next year, so has it wreaked havoc on the economy as well. Given the current crisis, some students are reevaluating their future goals.

According to our findings, 13% have decided to change their major to another field, and 15% said they planned to pursue a different career path altogether. Here, too, student loan borrowers were more likely to change their major or career plans because of the pandemic (32%) than those without loans (25%).

However, a majority of students (72%) still have the same career goals at this time.

Students biggest worry is contracting the coronavirus

While students are worried about getting a job and paying their bills, their top concern appears to be contracting the coronavirus. Among the students surveyed, 31% said their biggest fear about college this semester was COVID-19.

An additional 22% said they worried most about not having the college experience they wanted in terms of social life and extracurriculars, while 24% reported that their prime concern was learning less due to online classes.

About 1 in 10 students said complying with social distancing requirements was their major worry, and a similar number said they were most concerned about income loss. Student loan borrowers are especially worried about income loss, by 14% versus 9% for those without loans.

Getting ready for the fall 2020 semester

College will probably look different this fall for everyone, regardless of whether they plan to stay home or attend school on campus. While some schools have committed to primarily online learning for the immediate future, others plan to offer some amount of in-person classes. That stance could change in the coming weeks, however, if COVID caseloads and transmission rates continue to increase.

Since each school sets its own policies, make sure to check in with yours frequently so that you’re aware of the latest plans. And if you’re unable to find an on-campus or off-campus job, consider remote opportunities you can do from your computer.

If you’re struggling financially, your school might have additional aid or emergency loans to help. For more resources on financial aid and jobs for college students, head to Student Loan Hero’s Coronavirus Information Center.


Student Loan Hero commissioned Qualtrics to conduct an online survey of 1,050 full-time college students. The survey was fielded July 17-21, 2020.

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