More U.S students attend graduate school than ever before, with over three million graduate students in 2018. Graduate students may have different resources and needs than their undergraduate counterparts generally and during the pandemic.
Institutions of higher education adapted educational programming with the onset of Covid19. Most US schools shifted from in-person to online education. Some emptied their campuses or limited access to resources. Students experienced difficulties in adjusting to such changes. The pandemic also wrought changes to social interactions within institutions of higher education. Students navigated disruptions to their personal and environmental context, including social supports, sense of belonging, and health, which influence student retention and educational outcomes. Multiple studies worldwide found that students in higher education experienced pandemic-related feelings of anxiety..
In confidential virtual interviews with 19 current graduate students and recent graduates during fall 2020, we explored:
1)how changes caused by COVID-19 impacted students,
2) how students coped with these changes
3) Supports that students found helpful.
We recruited interview participants through our networks and snowball sampling. Of 19 participants, 14 identified as women, 12 Master’s students, 16 domestic students, 13 students lived with family, and 13 students attended public universities. All transcriptions were coded and analyzed in NVivo. The first author and study team used thematic analysis to find patterns or trends among interviews. Consensus coding, peer debriefing, and memoing enhanced study rigor. We use a person-in-environment conceptual framework to organize our findings.
Individual student assets included social resources (e.g. networks, academic preparedness) and material resources (e.g. housing, health, and finances). Pandemic-related adaptations were tangible, such as use of special equipment (i.e. dual monitors) and intangible, such as creation of novel co-learning arrangements.
Pre-existing institutional factors were school-based, professional or disciplinary resources (e.g. technology) and attitudes (helping professions). Institutional adaptations often centered on transparency and sufficiency or communication and whether the institutions took the pandemic seriously and prioritized student student needs and safety.
Finally, respondents were concerned about the pandemic’s impact on their short-term and long-term opportunities, including quality of education and limitations on experiential learning. Students also identified pandemic-related benefits (e.g. savings on transportation, employment opportunities, and living arrangements). The balance between pandemic-related benefits and concerns varied across the sample.
Conclusion and Implications:
Although COVID-19 was unexpected, institutions where students felt supported met student needs and uncertainty. Students with personal and social resources also found it easier to adapt. While student resilience sometimes compensated for institutional failure and vice versa, findings suggest the benefit of enhancing both. Institutions should consider communication and student support as a part of their educational mission. Supportive infrastructure for business-as-usual may help institutions respond in times of crisis and uncertainty. Similarly, institutions of higher education should attend to students’ material and social resources as part of their educational experience to enhance their ability to meet a dynamic social, economic, and health environment that serves as the context for their learning and future professional practice.