When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US in early 2020, students’ daily lives were upended almost overnight. Colleges had to rapidly adapt to a virtual modality while also adhering to ever-changing guidelines to keep their students safe.
They also had to ensure that students were still engaged, learning, and having the best college experience they could under the circumstances, but what impact did all of this have on student trust?
In this week’s The Science of Leadership, we dissect a new report that looks into those questions and examines which student populations were impacted the most.
COVID and Student Trust: The Study
To get to the bottom of how student trust was impacted by the pandemic, researchers from Washington State University Tri-Cities and Indiana University Bloomington surveyed more than 8,300 students from 29 colleges.
The survey asked students a special set of trust-related questions to reveal how they were handling the disruptions, and whether or not they increasingly or decreasingly trusted their institutions.
An important note is that the survey reporting period was from February 2020 to May 2020, which was during the pandemic’s early stages. While this provides a snapshot of how students felt during that time, another study to see if these results hold up long-term would be interesting. Still, the team’s findings help us understand how students were feeling during an extremely tumultuous time, giving us an idea of how schools can handle events like these in the future.
"There is a tension between ensuring campus safety on the one hand and being mindful of the vulnerabilities that students may have on the other," said Shannon Calderone, the study’s lead author and assistant professor of educational leadership at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
"We can learn from these experiences, but on the whole, many institutions were responsive in terms of making decisions and acting on them."
Trust in Higher Education Was Largely Unaffected
After analyzing the survey results, the team found that the pandemic did not weaken student trust in higher education institutions. But for some, trust did begin to wane, especially for Black students and students whose parents had not attended college.
While the report didn’t go into details about why these two groups specifically lost the most trust, focusing mainly on the raw data, the researchers note that these results align with groups who historically already have a mistrust of higher education.
Another possible cause is that the switch from in-person to virtual modalities left some students at a disadvantage, particularly low-income students. They were left without proper resources to succeed, such as high-speed Internet and other tools that in-person classes offer or that students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have more access to.
"A couple of reasons might explain these differences and one is the students' historical relationships with their institutions," Calderone said.
"Also, the more vulnerable students tend to be, the more that may have also shifted trust—especially when substantial changes were taking place in a very short period of time, that vulnerability could be exacerbated."
On the other hand, students with disabilities saw an increase in trust during this period. Again, the team doesn’t specifically get into why, though Calderone says these findings suggest that institutions were “pretty responsive in creating environments through this transition that would allow students with disabilities to be successful.”
The report concluded that student trust wasn’t severely impacted by COVID—at least in its early stages. This is great news for colleges and universities that have had to make many tough decisions over the last few years. Further reporting is needed to see how student trust is currently ranked after COVID continued to disrupt learning.
While student trust may have remained mostly intact throughout the pandemic, students certainly had their fair share of setbacks. For example, in a previous The Science of Leadership article, we explored how Gen Z’s soft skills were drastically impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What makes these findings more troubling is that according to a recent survey by the NSLS, soft skills are sought-after by employers. Our findings also suggest that higher education may not be adequately preparing students with these skills, even now.
Along those same lines, administrators have struggled to continue to provide amazing student experiences over the course of the pandemic. We sat down with three experts to discuss how they navigated the pandemic disruptions and how other admins can continue to engage and inspire students across modalities.
Finally, it will take more time to fully understand the impact COVID has had on higher education for admins, students, and institutions. As these reports continue to come out, we can gain a clearer picture of how to handle disruptive events in the future. For now, the new report offers some much-needed good news.
The Science of Leadership connects cutting-edge leadership research to the real world.
Ready to dig deeper? Read the new report about student trust in American Behavioral Scientist. You can also learn more about the soft skills gap and watch our recent discussion about student experience across modalities.
Have a burning question about the topics we’ve covered? Email us at email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.