The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) led to the disruption of the professional, personal, and academic lives of the students pursuing higher education. Due to the pandemic, many college students lost employment, experienced anxiety and loss of concentration, faced financial and food insecurity, and also faced exacerbation of pre-existing mental health issues.
Most of the previous studies focused on the difficulty in online learning and its impact on interpersonal relationships without considering the entire scenario. The current study took place in the City University of New York, the largest urban public university in the United States. It has been identified by some standard indicators that the students of CUNY are in a socially as well as financially precarious situation, with around half of the students being the first in their family to pursue a college degree. Also, New York was an early epicenter of the pandemic leading to unemployment and loss of income for many people. These circumstances also contributed to heightening the student's financial crisis.
The current study, examined the impact of the pandemic on higher education and the student's capacity to meet essential needs such as food, housing, and financial security during this time.
The study involved a baseline survey of 2282 CUNY students who represented the student sociodemographic characteristics and their experiences during the first wave of the pandemic during April 2020. Out of the 2282 CUNY students, 1035 students agreed to participate in the survey and be recontacted. However, out of the 10355 students, those who lived in the 33 worst affected neighborhoods by the pandemic were approached.
The baseline data were categorized into two groups, 'high impact' who were adversely affected by the pandemic and indicated mental-health, food, housing problems as well as expected delays to graduation and 'low impact' who were moderately affected by the pandemic and did not indicate any mental-health, food, housing problems, or delay in graduation. Furthermore, students who had taken leaves or dropped out of CUNY were approached to participate in the survey.
The students taking part in the survey had to undergo in-depth interviews (IDI) conducted virtually from May 17, 2021, to August 20, 2021. The students answered questions related to academic performance and persistence, experience with racism/inequities, physical and mental health, school resources and recommendations, and financial security.
Following each IDI, field notes were recorded that documented the interviewee's comments after the recording, emerging ideas, notes of potential edit, and how the interviewer's feelings about the interviewee and positionality might have affected the interview. Finally, the IDIs were transcribed using Otter transcription software.
The results of the study indicated that out of the 38 students included in the survey, 61 percent were female, and 39 percent were male. It was also found that 12 were Black, 8 were Hispanic, nine were White, and nine belonged to another racial group. Furthermore, one-third were caretakers of their families, 11 had graduated in fall 2020, 4 had graduated and were enrolled in another degree, 16 were currently enrolled, and seven had taken leave or dropped out.
High levels of anxiety and depression were observed in the students who undertook the survey. Although mental health did not interfere with the student's ability to continue school, it affected their ability to stay focused and do well academically. The study reported that students who received financial and social support to meet their needs could continue school. However, students who lacked financial and social support systems were unable to continue or maintain the same level of engagement at school.
Many students and their parents had lost their jobs during the pandemic due to which they had to work more to support the family, leading to the discontinuation of schools. However, the effect of the pandemic on students with financial and social support systems was positive since they got more time for schoolwork and to plan their meals.
The essential needs of the student were often met by resources from their college and public programs. However, many students refused to use these resources due to a lack of awareness or logistic barriers. Finally, the study also reported that for students whose essential needs were met, the role of faculty and their facilitation of online learning had a very important impact on their academic engagement and success.
Based on the results of the survey, certain recommendations were proposed for public universities after the pandemic. A few of the recommendations were the creation of student emergency funds and other financial support, creation of high-quality mental health counselling, engaging students in online courses to accommodate students who have disruptive home environments and providing a faculty who connects with students since they are the main point of contact for students.
Therefore, the current study indicated that by helping to address students' essential needs and creating a culture of supportive faculty, higher institutions could improve the lives of the students and their academic persistence, achievement, and degree completion.