Press release

Adrift in a Pandemic: Survey of 3,089 Students Finds Uncertainty About Returning to College

Sponsored by Businesswire

The sudden transition to remote teaching in the past couple months due to the COVID-19 crisis pushed educators to quickly piece together multiple solutions to deliver their courses online. In many instances, the result was a disjointed experience that required professors to navigate various technologies that were not designed to work well together. As such, many students developed a poor impression of the educational value they received and are re-evaluating their intentions to return to school in the Fall, according to a new survey of 3,089 current higher education students. The survey was conducted by Top Hat, the leading active learning platform for higher education, and the results were produced in an infographic.

“In the past couple of months, we have seen higher ed faculty and institutions around the world scramble to ensure students are able to continue their learning and finish the semester remotely, and it has been nothing less than a herculean effort,” said Nick Stein, CMO, Top Hat. “One of the biggest learnings has been just how difficult it is to do online teaching well. As the Fall 2020 semester looms on the horizon, colleges and universities are facing an unprecedented level of pressure to provide students with a significant return on investment in their education. Based on the results from this survey, students are expecting a more engaging, interactive, and human experience. Getting this right will be critical to the future of higher education.”

The survey polled higher education students in North America and was designed to capture the student voice to more clearly understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent campus closures are affecting current and returning students. The aim was to learn how they have been affected and how they are feeling about the remote learning experience they received in the past couple months. By sharing these findings with the community, Top Hat hopes to help improve general understanding of how the pandemic is impacting technology adoption, usage, and effectiveness in higher ed.

“As higher education deals with the unprecedented challenges arising from COVID-19 disruptions, it is critical for decision-makers to gather input from many perspectives. Especially from current students. Top Hat’s survey allows for broad-based input from students and is a valuable resource for the community,” said Phil Hill, partner, MindWires.

Students Miss the Human Connection with Their Instructors

More than eight out of 10 (85 percent) students miss face-to-face interactions with faculty and more than half (53 percent) no longer have regular access to them. Most students (86 percent) also miss socializing with other students, and almost seven out of 10 (69 percent) students said they no longer have regular access to them.

Overall, more than half (52 percent) of students are generally feeling anxious. The abrupt move from a predictable routine and class experience has spurred concern amongst many students regarding their ability to finish the semester (40 percent) and pass the semester (50 percent).

Adding to the sense of dislocation and disconnection is the loss of predictable access to support resources on which many students rely, such as: study spaces (76 percent), fitness and sports facilities (58 percent), student housing (28 percent), student counseling (28 percent), food services (28 percent), and technology, such as Internet and computers (27 percent).

Students Give Low Grades to the Abrupt Switch to Emergency Online Learning

Almost seven out of 10 (68 percent) feel the emergency online instruction they have received is worse than the in-person instruction they’re used to. Many students experienced difficulty using online learning tools (28 percent) and accessing online learning materials (22 percent). And it’s affecting their study habits — half (50 percent) of students are spending less time on coursework.

Students are Missing Out on Classroom Engagement

Engagement plays a major role in ensuring students feel they are deriving value from their education. Almost eight out of 10 (78 percent) of students say the online class experience they’ve had so far is unengaging. Of these students, more than half (53 percent) are spending less time on coursework, 39 percent don’t enjoy or see the value in real-time online learning, and 75 percent think the online instruction they’ve received is worse than in-person instruction.

Spending time with faculty and fellow students is important to them as well. Three out of four (75 percent) students miss the face-to-face interactions, and of these students, 52 percent are spending less time on coursework, 38 percent don’t enjoy or see the value in real-time online learning, and 76 percent think the online instruction they’ve received is worse than in-person instruction.

Students Have Empathy for the Plight of their Colleges and Professors

Students recognize the incredible challenges their institutions and faculty have been facing, and appreciate their hard work in responding to the epidemic. Seven out of 10 (70 percent) rated their schools’ response to the COVID-19 crisis as good or excellent, and 66 percent rated their professors’ responses as good or excellent.

However, they felt that the emergency remote instruction they’ve received has left much to be desired, and there is room for improvement: one in four (25 percent) of students say their opinion of their school has gotten worse during the crisis.

Since colleges and universities will have the next few months to prepare for the Fall, students will have higher expectations for thoughtful course design and quality of instruction.

The Worst-case Scenario: Students May Not Come Back

With more than a quarter of students questioning a return to their current college or university in the Fall due to the uncertainty of how their school plans to re-open, institutions must move quickly to ensure they are ready to deliver engaging learning experiences that drive student success in any teaching scenario.

The stakes are high: 85 percent of college and university presidents are concerned about COVID-19’s immediate impact on student attrition, and 89 percent are concerned about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on overall financial stability.1

Furthermore, one in five university presidents lack confidence in the financial stability of their schools beyond the next five years2. Finances were already strained and, without improvements to the value students derive from their education, the situation is likely to get worse.

Turning It Around for Fall 2020 with Flexibility in Mind

Despite their recent experience with online learning, most students (75 percent) are planning to return to their current school for the Fall term. And while students miss the in-person interactions of on-campus life, many see value in online instruction due to the flexibility it affords. In fact, more than one in three (36 percent) students said they prefer a blended learning model consisting of in-person and online instruction, 48 percent prefer independent asynchronous online learning, and 41 percent prefer real-time synchronous online learning.

Understanding what’s important to students will set the stage for success in the Fall. Based on student feedback in the survey, students want:

– Improved online learning experiences

– Face-to-face interaction with faculty

– Social experiences with other students

– More learning materials

– Better coordination between administration and faculty

– Improved connections with and support from faculty and administration


Survey infographic

Research Methodology

Survey responses were collected by Top Hat from 3,089 college and university students from across North America between April 15 and 20, 2020. Forty (40) percent of respondents were first-year students, 27 percent were in their second year, 19 percent were in their third year, and 14 percent were in their fourth year.

About Top Hat

Top Hat’s all-in-one teaching platform enables professors to connect with students inside and outside the classroom with engaging content, tools, and activities. Millions of students at 750 leading North American colleges and universities use the Top Hat teaching platform for in-class, online, and blended learning. To learn about Top Hat’s active learning platform, visit

1Inside Higher Ed, Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis: A Survey of College and University Presidents,” (March, 2020). Retrieved April 26, 2020.

2Inside Higher Ed, 2020 Survey of College and University Presidents” (February, 2020). Retrieved April 26, 2020.