By Benjamin P. Correia-Harker, Ph.D.—MSL Co-Principal Investigator

As higher education institutions reopen for spring term, administrators, staff, and faculty are navigating new challenges presented by the rapid spread of the COVID-19 omicron variant.  At this point in the pandemic, students may expect last-minute shifts to schedules and modes of instruction given their past experiences; yet this does not minimize the impact the pandemic has had on their learning experiences in college.

To help us understand how students might experience these recent and potential transitions, data from the 2021 administration of the MSL might provide insight for ways to support students.

2021 MSL Administration Overview

The Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership is an international research program focused on understanding the influences of higher education in shaping various aspects of leadership capacity and other related outcomes (e.g., leadership efficacy, cognitive skills, resilience, innovation). Under the direction of John Dugan, Principal Investigator of the MSL and Executive Director of Youth Leadership Programs at The Aspen Institute, the MSL was administered in the spring of 2021 (January – May) at 70 institutions in the U.S.  Of these participating institutions:

  • 40% are private and 60% are public institutions;
  • 11% are baccalaureate, 26% are master’s, and 58% are doctoral institutions;
  • 40% are located in rural or suburban locations with 59% being in various sizes of cities; and
  • 7% are minority-serving institutions.

A total of 234,851 students received the survey with 49,307 students responding to the survey (21.0% response rate).  Of those who responded:

  • 66.9% are women, 31.0% men, and 2.1% transgender or another gender identity;
  • 62.9% are white, 11.3% multiracial, 8.7% Asian/Asian American, 7.9% Latino/Hispanic, 5.3% African American/Black, .9% Middle Eastern/North African, .3% American Indian/Alaska Native, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 2.6% another racial identity;
  • 9.9% are low-income, 19.7% working class, 42.8% middle class, 25.1% upper-middle/professional-middle class, and 2.4% wealthy; and
  • 14.9% are first generation college students

MSL and COVID-19 Information

Given the unique context of the 2021 MSL administration, the research team added a series of survey items to better understand students’ educational experiences during the COVID pandemic.  These items addressed perceptions of students’ adjustment to the educational context during the pandemic, the obstacles they encountered related to their education during the pandemic, and concerns they have about their personal and educational experiences moving forward.  Some of these items were adapted and used with permission from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium COVID-19 Survey (see for more information).

COVID-19 Results

Slightly less than half (47%) of respondents indicated they adapted well or very well to the educational context during the COVID pandemic.  Responses illuminated a few key obstacles for students adjusting to the educational context during the COVID-19 pandemic. When looking at obstacles directly associated with learning and social engagement in the collegiate experience:

  • Nearly half (48.8%) indicated course content wasn’t appropriate for online learning
  • Nearly two-thirds (66.3%) noted inability to learn effectively in an online format
  • More than half (59.1%) identified lack of access to appropriate study space or a distracting home environment as a barrier
  • More than three quarters (77.2%) stated lack of interaction/communication with other students as an obstacle
  • Three out of four (74.6%) indicated inability to participate in campus activities that they would normally engage

It’s important to recognize that with challenges of unexpected, online learning and the lack of social outlets, students may be experiencing strained mental and emotional bandwidth that impact how they navigate their collegiate experience.

When looking at broader factors (e.g., finances, health, family) that also influenced transitions to the new educational context during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • More than a third of respondents (34.8%) lost wages from employment
  • Nearly a third (32.7%) indicated a family member experienced a loss or reduction of income
  • One in five (21.5%) had a family member or close friend hospitalized due to COVID-19; and
  • 13.9% stated a family member or close friend passed away from COVID-19

Please note that these data were collected prior to the delta and omicron waves so the percent of students whose close friends or family members have been hospitalized or passed due to COVID-19 is potentially higher at this point.

Whereas nearly every respondent (95.8%) indicated some sort of obstacle, students of color, particularly Black, Middle Eastern, and Latinx students, experienced the greatest impact of COVID in terms of wellness and financial considerations.

  • 39.2% of African American/Black, 45.7% of Middle Eastern/North African, and 50.6% of Latino/Hispanic students indicated a loss or reduction of income from other family members (compared to 28.7% of white students)
  • 19.2% of Middle Eastern/North African, 19.5% of Latino/Hispanic, and 20.1% of African American/Black students reported loss or reduction of scholarship or grant aid (compared to 9.3% of white students)
  • 34.0% of African American/Black, 34.9% of Middle Eastern/North African, and 39.8% of Latino/Hispanic students stated a family member or close friend was hospitalized with COVID-19 (compared to 17.6% of white students); and
  • 23.6% of African American/Black, 25.8% of Middle Eastern/North African, and 29.0% of Latino/Hispanic students witnessed a family member or close friend pass away from COVID-19 (compared to 10.4% of white students)

The greater financial impact on students of color seem to translate into greater financial concerns for the future with:

  • 33.8% of African American/Black and 34.4% of Latino/Hispanic students being concerned or very concerned about meeting routine financial obligations (compared to 18.8% of white students); and
  • 47.2% of African American/ Black and 52.8% of Latino/Hispanic students being concerned or very concerned about their ability to pay for education in the future (compared to 32.1% of white students)

Given the financial impact of the COVID-19 context, we also explored differences by socioeconomic class.  Results point to low-income and working-class students disproportionately experiencing financial obstacles and future concerns due to COVID-19.  Some of the most concerning results include:

  • 44.9% of working class and 49.7% of low-income students lost wages from employment (versus 34.8% for all socioeconomic classes)
  • 46.0% of working class and 54.6% of low-income students had family members experience loss or reduction of income (versus 32.0% for all socioeconomic classes)

These obstacles likely translate into greater concern about future financial obligations with:

  • 34.6% of working class and 44.8% of low-income students being concerned or very concerned ability to meet routine financial concerns (versus 22.0% for all socioeconomic classes)
  • 53.1% of working class and 58.7% of low-income students being concerned or very concerned about their ability to pay for education in the future (versus 35.0% for all socioeconomic classes)

As educators continue to make difficult decisions regarding how to navigate pandemic challenges, explicit attention to how decisions may affect Black, Latinx, and Middle Eastern as well as low-income and working-class students is essential.  Even more so, these students also need additional supports that aid their navigation of financial hardship, grief/loss, and diverted attention and energy to other personal and family needs.

With higher education often touted as an “equalizer”, these findings continue to call into question the viability of this claim, especially when in the context of significant societal strife.  Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these data reaffirm messages that marginalized populations experience disproportional financial and well-being challenges.  Thus, one could ask whether institutions provide enough resources and supports to enable successful completion of programs.  Unfortunately, with Black, Latinx, and Middle Eastern students reporting a reduction/loss of scholarship or grant aid at twice the rate as white students, one might question whether colleges and universities contribute (whether knowingly or not) to challenges for marginalized students and/or not providing robust resources to support these students.  And with many supports and resources also provided by organizations and communities outside of higher education, the same question can be asked of broader society as well.

Thus, as our society traverses this new wave of COVID-19, what are the ways that we can provide care and grace for students and community members, particularly for those who have experienced greater hardship as a result of the pandemic? We encourage educators to meaningfully consider how various students on their campuses are experiencing the pandemic context and potentially use these findings to inform work to support student success.