Here’s how the pandemic impacted graduate students from underserved groups


Here’s how the pandemic impacted graduate students from underserved groups

Stories from 2,000+ prospective students, in their own words

Students and learning illustration

Every year, we survey prospective graduate and adult learners about their enrollment plans. And every year, one of my favorite parts about my job as a researcher on our Adult Learner Recruitment team is the opportunity to read through hundreds of the stories these students share about their journey back to school. I’m consistently struck by the resilience and tenacity of students completing their bachelor’s or pursuing an advanced degree.

But the stories from this year’s survey research will stick with me even more than in previous years. This past summer, we surveyed more than 2,000 current and future students to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on students’ education plans—and the disparate impact of the pandemic on students from historically underserved groups. Here’s what we learned, including some of the stories that students shared with us.

One-third of students said the pandemic altered their education plans

Across the board, thirty-five percent of the students we surveyed said the pandemic impacted their education plans. But as we predicted at the start of the pandemic, the ways in which COVID-19 affected students and their journeys to enrollment vary significantly.

For some, the pandemic accelerated their return to school. Time saved from canceled commutes and other commitments created opportunities for some students to research, apply, and enroll in graduate programs. Other survey respondents shared that waived test scores and other application requirements led them to apply to school sooner than they would have otherwise.

“COVID actually made my plans more attainable. Because I have worked from home for the past year, what I saved in commuting time and down time at my job gave me the opportunity to squeeze in time to work on a second master’s degree.”
- Survey respondent

And for some students, the pandemic offered a moment of reflection about their career goals and consequently, led them to pursue a degree that perhaps they never would have. I was especially struck by the response from a critical care nurse, and another from a teacher, who shared that the pandemic’s impact on their jobs made them realize they wanted to change or advance in their careers—mirroring some of the changes friends and family in my own life made during the pandemic.

“COVID pushed me to go back to school after spending the past year and a half as a traditional classroom teacher. The burnout of that experience along with my desire for more growth as an educator and person really has pushed me to seek new horizons.”
- Survey respondent

But for other students, the pandemic delayed or even derailed their education plans entirely. Students for whom the pandemic slowed their plans cite changes in their financial circumstances, increased caretaker responsibilities, illness or death among family and friends, and—understandably—the sheer stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic as barriers to pursuing their education this year.

“COVID-19 just made life more difficult. I don’t want to add anything else to my plate at this time.”
- Survey respondent

“COVID-19 affected my plans because I was placed on stand-by at my place of work and was not able to continue saving money towards achieving my dream of going back to school for my master’s degree.”
- Survey respondent

The pandemic has had an outsize effect on students from underserved groups

Our survey shed light on just how disparate the impact of the pandemic was on students of color. More than half of the Asian students we surveyed said the pandemic impacted their education plans. A couple students who identified as Asian also shared that the rise in racism and Asian hate during the pandemic impacted their education plans.

Additionally, about 45% of African, African American, and Black students said their plans were impacted by the pandemic, along with 31% of Hispanic/Latinx students. That’s compared to about 25% of White/Caucasian students who said the pandemic altered their plans.

ALR Blog Chart 10-22-21 Impacted Plans

The pandemic heightened the obstacles students of color face to enrollment in graduate programs. But at the same time, students across the board told us that a “diverse student body” is an increasingly important factor in their enrollment decisions.

ALR Blog Chart 10-22-21 Enrollment Decision

Additionally, 60 percent of the international students we surveyed said that the pandemic altered their enrollment plans, compared to 28% of domestic students. In total, the Council of Graduate Schools estimates the enrollment among first-time international students in graduate programs declined nearly 40% from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

“Because of COVID-19, my GRE and TOEFL exams were delayed. I had to apply to university hastily after recovering from COVID-19. The second wave of COVID took the life of a family member, which completely disturbed my plans. Even after receiving admissions offers, I am unable to enroll because my family is financially and emotionally devasted.”
- Survey respondent

The pandemic underscores the need for dedicated graduate student support services

Ultimately, our survey reiterated the extent to which COVID-19 took a toll on all aspects of students’ lives—from professional to financial to academic and mental and physical well-being. This year, students told us in greater numbers that the cost of attendance is their greatest barrier to pursuing graduate education. And more so than in previous years’ surveys, survey respondents identified “online support services” and “student support services” as highly important in their enrollment decisions.

But as my colleague Ed Venit wrote, support services for graduate students and other adult learners lag behind those designed to serve traditional undergrads. Graduate student success and retention just hasn’t been at the forefront of the conversation. The graduate school deans Ed spoke to reiterated that there is an opportunity to better define—and measure—what success means for graduate students and to adapt resources available to undergrads to serve graduate students. The pandemic only amplifies the need to ensure graduate students have the resources and support to complete their degree and get the most out of their grad school experience.

Download the full survey to learn more

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