Majority of Students Refuse to Pay For College Classes This Fall

Data suggest most BIPOC students would rather schools stay closed than take classes online.

Higher education in the United States is in a precarious position. Schools around the country move to limit or cancel in-person classes in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19. Many schools have moved toward virtual learning curricula, offering classes online rather than on campus. The transition, however, presents a number of challenges for students.

We surveyed over 6,000 students to inquire as to how they felt about the scenario.

Student Attitudes Toward Online Learning

This report is composed of the following sections:

1. Background
2. Key Findings
3. Methodology
4. Survey Results

Student attendance and engagement in America’s universities are problems during normal school years. Today, with many of the nation’s colleges and universities closed and looking to stay closed in the upcoming 2020-2021 school year, student absenteeism is a serious concern.

According to a recent survey by the NY Times, many educators reported that, during the end of the previous school year, students were not logging into virtual classes or simply not turning in assigned work.

The absence rate was particularly high at universities with relatively high numbers of low-income students, whose access to home computers and internet connections can be spotty. Some teachers reported that fewer than half of their students regularly participated.

Shifting Covid Education Focus

To date, research around Covid and education has centered on educators – teachers and schools – with discussions gravitating toward new forms of schooling that enable students to learn in person while concurrently minimizing the risks of spreading the virus. However, research on student attitudes towards remote learning has oddly taken a back seat. 

Surveys on student attitudes have largely focused on how educators perceive student attendance, rather than the students’ attitudes themselves.

This is not all that surprising, in light of recent data: many teachers have expressed fear about returning to school in the fall, according to a recent report from NBC. What’s more, schools are already preparing to point the finger of blame at students, before the school year has even started. 

Given that schools, teachers, and students all have different – and sometimes conflicting – attitudes towards their education, we sought to collect data from the cohort that arguably matters most in the remote learning debate: students.

With the fall semester just weeks away, the trillion dollar question is this: is remote learning worth it for students? What can we expect from students in the coming year? Will a new year bring new energy and increased attendance? Or, conversely, will more students disengage from online learning, or forego the experience altogether? 

Student Attitudes Toward Remote Learning Survey

Thousands of students participated in our Student Attitudes Toward Remote Learning survey to share their preferences, concerns, opinions, and much more when it comes to online “e-learning” in 2020 in the wake of Covid-19 shutdowns and school closings. Our research seeks to address the gap in data between students and educators, to get a sense of how students view the return on investment of an online versus in-person education. 

In July 2020, we surveyed 6,251 students with plans to attend universities in 49 states (Alaskan universities and schools were not included). Our approach was two-fold:

  • First, we collated a number of widely-referenced surveys on educators’ attitudes to remote learning, and used these as a framework to develop questions for students. 
  • Second, we asked students directly about their attitudes towards “remote learning” (ie, e-learning, online education, etc.) amidst the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, with the upcoming school year fast-approaching.

⭐️ Key Findings

The results are striking. We found a growing aversion to remote learning among all students polled, regardless of age and gender. This effect was most pronounced in black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), more than 73% of whom see online classes as significantly less valuable (in terms of ROI) than in-person learning environments.

These data indicate that the fears expressed by educators around remote learning may be yet understated, and that an attempt to keep schools closed in the fall could have disastrous consequences for students, particularly minorities. The debate around school openings has been largely politicized and focused solely on containment of the pandemic, but has largely ignored the longer term consequences of limited learning experiences.

More specifically, our key findings were:

  • Students are very unwilling to pay the same for online classes as they are for in-person classes. A large majority, 78%, of our respondents said that these classes should come with at least a 66% discount
  • Students feel that online classes are dramatically less effective than in-person classes. 42% of white students, and 35% of BIPOC students, say that online classes are much less effective than traditional classroom environments
  • Students remain ambivalent about whether they would stay in the state where their university is located if their college only offered online classes.
  • Students feel that their relationships with their peers are less strong when they are learning remotely, but only a little. 41% of students said that their ability to connect with their peers was a little less strong when learning remotely, but 28% reported that they can actually connect more strongly with their classmates in this context.
  • A sizable majority of the students we surveyed – 67% – said that their ability to connect with their teachers was reduced in remote learning environments, though this trend was less pronounced among BIPOC students.  
  • White students typically feel that attending college provides a high return on investment (ROI), whereas BIPOC students are far more likely to see the value of college in different terms. Overall, however, 76% of students still feel that university attendance offers a high ROI.
  • Fully 53% of white students, and 73% of their BIPOC classmates, feel that a move to online learning decreases their ROI when it comes to attending college.
  • There is an even split between those students who would like their school to reopen, and those who would prefer to see it remain closed. A very slight majority (51%) would prefer their school to remain closed, and a slightly higher percentage of BIPOC students would prefer this.
  • If schools reopened in the fall, but put in place protection measures, the vast majority of students say that they would attend. There is also little to no difference between white and BIPOC students when it comes to this intention. 
  • If schools reopened in the Fall, but only offered online classes, they are likely to see significantly lower attendance rates than they would if they offered physically-present classes. 48% of students say they would attend online classes, and just 7% say they would not.

At first glance, our findings might be encouraging for colleges looking to move to an online-only learning environment.

However, other data from our survey indicate that these same students would also seek a significant reduction in their college fees if they are only able to attend online, and that they see the ROI of online classes as significantly lower than in-person environments.

Methodology

We set out to conduct the largest public survey to date of student opinion about remote learning, asking over 6,251 students in 17 countries. As a framework, we used similar questions posed towards educators (schools and teachers), but written for the students themselves. 

Our study was conducted for TheTokenist.io utilizing one sample set of data from Google Surveys (see data here), a popular source of data which allows for highly-segmented audience selection and online multiple choice questionnaires. Fieldwork was undertaken Jul 2nd to Jul 30th, 2020. 

Respondents were aged 17–24, all of whom have been accepted into or are currently enrolled as a student in an American university, with plans to attend in the upcoming 2020 Fall Semester as either an undergraduate, master’s, or equivalent. Over 38% of our survey respondents fell within the 17–19 age range and identified as incoming freshmen. 

Surveys were conducted via Google Surveys (results available here). Google Survey results came from 6,251 applicants. Our comparison studies utilize Harris Poll and Statista data, both of which provide online polling solutions and segments by age and demographic.

We believe data generated from Google Surveys is reliable and contains a large sample set of possible respondents. Google Surveys is widely used as a reliable means of research.

Notable use cases include the 2012 US elections, surveys run by NYT, among many others. Pew Research has found that Google Consumer Surveys samples align with the demographic composition of the overall internet population. 

This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For a more complete picture of our survey methodology and sample size please contact us at info@tokenistmedia.com.

Survey Results

1. Would you be willing to pay the same for online classes as in person?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
No. I would only pay 0-33% of the cost for the same classes.48%54%52%
No. I would only pay 34-66% of the cost for the same classes.33%35%34%
No. I would only pay 66-99% of the cost for the same classes.13%11%13%
Yes. I would pay the same.6%2%5%
Would you be willing to pay the same for online classes as in person

Commentary

In general, students are very unwilling to pay the same for online classes as they are for in-person classes. A large majority, 82%, of our respondents said that these classes should come with at least a 66% discount.

Just 5% of students said that they would be willing to pay the same amount for online classes. This trend is particularly pronounced for BIPOC students, who are even less willing than the general cohort to pay full price for these classes.

Some reasons for this are suggested by the data below. Students feel that online classes do not allow them to connect with their peers or their teachers to the same degree as in-person classes, and that remote classes do not offer the same return on investment as in-person college courses. These data indicate that colleges may have to offer a significant discount to students in order to encourage them to attend remote classes this Fall.

2. Do you find online classes are more or less effective for learning as in person?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Online classes are way more effective for learning3%10%4%
Online classes are as effective as in person learning29%33%30%
Online classes are less effective as in person learning26%23%25%
Online classes are way less effective as in person learning42%35%41%
Do you find online classes are more or less effective for learning as in person

Commentary

In line with the preceding question, students feel that online classes are dramatically less effective than in-person classes. 42% of white students, and 35% of BIPOC students, say that online classes are much less effective than traditional classroom environments.

This said, it appears that BIPOC students feel that they are better able to adjust to remote environments, with 10% reporting that they find remote classes more effective than in-person classes, compared to just 3% of white students.

It’s not easy to see how this perception can be ameliorated. As other questions in our research indicate, students find it difficult to connect with each other, their teachers, and their academic content during remote classes. This points to an urgent need for colleges to put in place peer learning and communication classes alongside online lectures, in order to fully capture the value of college attendance.

3. Would you prefer to physically stay in the state where your university is located if you could do most of your classes online?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Yes, I would for sure stay in my state28%34%29%
I would probably stay in my state19%22%20%
I would probably leave my state31%28%30%
No, I would for sure leave my state22%16%21%
Would you prefer to physically stay in the state where your university is located if you could do most of your classes online

Commentary

Students remain ambivalent about whether they would stay in the state where their university is located if their college only offered online classes. A fairly even split of students would stay in their university state compared to those who would move state, presumably to move back to their home state.

Notably, however, BIPOC students are more likely to report that they would stay in their university state, with 34% reporting that they would stay put.

These data indicate that universities will need to clearly communicate with students about their plans for the coming school year. If – as our respondents indicate – a slim majority of students would move home in order to take remote classes, calling them back to college after a few weeks of remote classes is likely to lead to disruption and significant added cost.

4. Do you think that relationships with your peers are stronger online or offline?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Offline relationships with peers are much stronger6%7%6%
Offline relationships with peers are a bit stronger28%29%28%
Online relationships with peers are a bit less strong41%40%41%
Online relationships with peers are much less strong25%24%25%
Do you think that relationships with your peers are stronger online or offline

Commentary

Students feel that their relationships with their peers are less strong when they are learning remotely, but only a little. 41% of students said that their ability to connect with their peers was a little less strong when learning remotely, but 28% reported that they can actually connect more strongly with their classmates in this context. The differences between BIPOC and white students, when it comes to this trend, are negligible.

These data indicate that students are able to take some responsibility for connecting with their peers even when learning remotely, presumably through social media. However, these data also point to the need for colleges to provide social and networking opportunities alongside online classes in order to ensure that students are engaging with their classmates.

5. Do you think that relationships with your teachers are stronger online or offline?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Offline relationships with teachers are much stronger8%16%9%
Offline relationships with teachers are a bit stronger23%27%24%
Online relationships with teachers are a bit less strong39%35%38%
Online relationships with teachers are much less strong30%22%29%
Do you think that relationships with your teachers are stronger online or offline

Commentary

It appears that remote learning has a far greater effect when it comes to connecting with teachers than it does on the ability to connect with peers. A sizeable majority of the students we surveyed – 67% – said that their ability to connect with their teachers was reduced in remote learning environments, though this trend was less pronounced among BIPOC students.  

At first glance, these data may seem counterintuitive, in that a significant minority of students report that their relationships with their teachers may actually be strengthened in online environments.

However, it should also be recognized that many such environments allow students to send messages directly to their teachers, and this may lead to stronger relationships for students who are reticent to approach lecturers in public environments. Our data suggest that this trend is particularly pronounced among BIPOC students.

6. Do you think there is a return on investment from going to college?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
High return on investment79%64%76%
No return on investment15%8%14%
Negative return on investment, but still worth it3%10%4%
Very negative return on investment3%18%6%
Do you think there is a return on investment from going to college

Commentary

The data returned from this question confirm the results of many prior surveys: that white students typically feel that attending college provides a high return on investment (ROI), whereas BIPOC students are far more likely to see the value of college in different terms. Overall, however, 76% of students still feel that university attendance offers a high ROI.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, these data will be worrying for colleges. The economic slump caused by the lockdown measures of recent months has led many families to re-assess or delay the decision to invest in a college education.

These data indicate that BIPOC students are far less likely to see this investment as providing a good return, and are therefore much more likely to decide against enrolling on a college course. When combined with the perception that remote learning offers even less of an ROI (see below), this is likely to lead to disproportionate and deleterious impacts on BIPOC students.

7. What impact does a remote learning or an online class curriculum have on your expected return on investment (ROI) of attending college? 

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Increases ROI of Attending College26%16%24%
No Impact on ROI of Attending College16%11%15%
Decreases ROI of Attending College58%73%59%
What impact does a remote learning or an online class curriculum have

Commentary

Given the fact that students feel that remote learning solutions reduce their ability to connect with their peers and their teachers (see above), it’s no surprise that students also feel that online classes offer a lower ROI than traditional courses. Fully 58% of white students, and 73% of their BIPOC classmates, feel that a move to online learning decreases their ROI when it comes to attending college.

The fact that this perception is particularly pronounced among BIPOC students is another indication that when it comes to college attendance rates, minorities are likely to be disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

For many students, but particularly those from minority backgrounds, the chance to attend college is about far more than just listening to lectures; it also provides an opportunity to move to another state, and to participate in a novel environment. Unless colleges can replicate some of the value (and the “feeling”) of this, it’s unlikely that students will be willing to pay to participate in online classes.

8. Are you in favor of schools reopening this fall, despite the risk of the pandemic?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Highly in favor29%22%28%
Slightly in favor22%19%21%
Slightly against30%34%31%
Very against19%26%20%
Are you in favor of schools reopening this fall, despite the risk of the pandemic

Commentary

Students remain highly ambivalent when it comes to the question of whether schools should reopen in the Fall. There is, in fact, a remarkably even split between those students who would like their school to reopen, and those who would prefer to see it remain closed. A very slight majority (51%) of white students would prefer their school to remain closed, and a slightly higher percentage of BIPOC students would prefer this.

These data indicate that colleges have a careful balancing act to perform. Students are not opposed – in general – to their schools reopening, but many remain to be convinced that this will be safe.

Given the negative perceptions of remote learning environments that have also been revealed by our survey, this may mean that colleges will need to reassure students – and especially those from minority backgrounds – that they can adequately protect students from the risk of infection.

9. If your school reopened this fall, but with restrictions (smaller class sizes, fewer classes, physical barriers, and/or pod learning groups, etc.), would you attend?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Very likely to attend67%64%66%
Quite likely to attend28%27%28%
Quite unlikely to attend3%4%3%
Very unlikely to attend2%5%3%
would you attend If your school reopened this fall

Commentary

If schools reopened in the fall, but put in place protection measures, the vast majority of students say that they would attend. There is also little to no difference between white and BIPOC students when it comes to this intention. 

In some ways, these data are unsurprising. The students we surveyed have, after all, already paid for their college courses, and it seems that they are reluctant to miss a semester of their courses.

However, these data should also be looked at in the context of the previous question: while most students will attend college (they say) if protection measures are in place, many are against colleges reopening without stringent protection measures in place. 

10. If your school reopened this fall, but only online, would you attend?

WhiteBIPOCTotal
Very likely to attend49%46%48%
Quite likely to attend35%34%35%
Quite unlikely to attend10%11%10%
Very unlikely to attend6%9%7%
If your school reopened this fall, but only online, would you attend

Commentary

If schools reopened in the Fall, but only offered online classes, they are likely to see significantly lower attendance rates than they would if they offered physically-present classes. 48% of students say they would attend online classes, and just 7% say they would not.

At first glance, this might be encouraging for colleges looking to move to an online-only learning environment. However, other data from our survey indicate that these same students would also seek a significant reduction in their college fees if they are only able to attend online, and that they see the ROI of online classes as significantly lower than in-person environments.

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