College Persistence During a Pandemic

Supporting First Generation Students in Reaching Graduation

Cassandra R. Davis
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Megan Griffard
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Rex Long
Texas State University

Milanika Turner
Florida A&M University

Harriet Hartman
Rowan University

Julie Sexton
University of Colorado Boulder

Terri Norton
Bucknell University

Dara Méndez
University of Pittsburgh

Jason Méndez
University of Pittsburgh

Publication Date: 2021


This project focused on investigating college persistence and barriers to the persistence of first-generation college students (FGCS) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. FGCS are more likely to have low incomes, represent communities of color, and arrive at college with fewer resources than their non-first-generation peers. Thus, COVID-19 will likely exacerbate economic inequalities for FGCS. In this study, an interdisciplinary research team sought to determine if and how COVID-19 impacted FGCS’ physical and emotional health. Additionally, the team assessed the usefulness of distance learning mechanisms and collected perceptions of institutional performance during the pandemic. The team conducted and analyzed 49 interviews with FGCS across five universities. Results showed that FGCS experienced stress, felt unmotivated, and developed disorders due to not being connected with peers during the pandemic. Students also indicated difficulty logging on to classes virtually and accessing appropriate resources to excel in school. Ultimately, responses from FGCS indicated that universities and professors should provide more mental health spaces and be more patient as students navigate the virtual schooling world.  


College campuses have experienced natural disasters before the COVID-19 pandemic, but relatively little research has focused on the impact of such disasters on college communities. Earlier studies found that natural disasters not only produce significant levels of psychosocial stress for college students, but that such trauma is a function of their demographic characteristics, social support, and educational impacts (Raid & Norris, 19961; Bateman & Edwards, 20022; Sattler et al., 20023; Zhang et al., 20044). These studies also suggest that disasters create additional emotional trauma when taking into consideration the storm’s location, physical damage, resource loss, evacuation and relocation anxiety, and other post-disaster recovery problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic differs from most of these earlier disasters since the physical infrastructure of college campuses has been left relatively intact. However, the social structures on campuses have faced a dramatic upheaval. Nationwide, higher education institutions have struggled to cope during a relatively long siege of uncertainty. Unlike hurricanes that strike and leave disaster in their wake, the pandemic itself disrupted social, emotional, economic, and physical security for millions of college students. College campuses were pressured to disband physical presence on campus and sent almost all students home, creating differential impacts – including those to living situation, health, and access to educational resources – across campus communities.

Shortly after the pandemic emerged, researchers across the nation met with a common goal: examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified barriers for first-generation college students (FGCS) as they persist through college. Our ultimate intention is to provide insight for college administrators and interested stakeholders at the local, national, and global levels on how to best meet the needs of FGCS. Our research questions are as follows:

  1. How, if at all, has COVID-19 impacted FGCS’ physical and emotional health?
  2. To what extent has remote learning aided FGCS learning during the pandemic?
  3. What, if any, suggestions for improvement to schooling do FGCS give to their base institutions?

Our research team is a multidisciplinary group that consists of scholars of color, FGCS, and members of underrepresented groups who intentionally investigate topics that affect marginalized communities. The team consists of faculty, administrators, and students across seven universities who represent various disciplines: anthropology, education, engineering, environmental studies, public health, public policy, and sociology.

The team conducted an explanatory sequential mixed-methods design where we first administered surveys then followed-up with interviews with FGCS located across five higher education institutions: Bucknell University (Pennsylvania), Florida A&M University, Rowan University (New Jersey), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania). This study began in Spring 2020 with the expectation of completion in Spring 2022. This paper only provides findings from the Fall 2020 interviews.

This report opens with a review of relevant literature, followed by a more detailed presentation of our methodology. We then present our findings concerning FGCS’ response to the enforcement of remote learning; the impact of the pandemic on their mental, emotional and physical health; and the students’ responses to school policies and their recommendations to their respective institutions. We conclude with our policy recommendations.

Literature Review

FGCS Experiences

FGCS are more likely to experience a difficult transition from high school to college and experience lower rates of persistence and graduation in college than do non-FGCS (Lohfink & Pauleson, 20055; Pascarella et al., 20046; Redford & Hoyer, 20177; Terenzini et al., 19968; Toutkoushian, 20219). Recent studies have provided an understanding of the challenges FGCS encounter as they transition and persist in college, including lower household income, higher financial strain, lack of family support and social capital, and being less academically prepared for college (DeAngelo & Franke, 201610; Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Pascarella et al., 2004; Phillips et al., 202011, Redford & Hoyer, 2017, Terenzini et al., 1996).

Additionally, research shows that FGCS are more likely to be from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups than non-FGCS (Redford & Hoyer, 2017). Data from the Postsecondary National Policy Institute (202112) showed that Black and Latinx college students comprise most first-generation undergraduates, at 41 and 61 percent, respectively. Other studies have shown that these students of color also encounter racial discrimination within their learning institutions (Havlik et al., 202013; Terenzini et al., 1996). Taken together, additional barriers of racism toward FGCS are also likely to contribute to lower college graduation rates.

Considering that before COVID-19 FGCS encountered more barriers as they persisted through college than their non-FGCS peers, we argue that FGCS may be at higher risk than non-FGCS for leaving college early due to the emerging negative impacts of COVID-19.


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted numerous health outcomes. The most apparent of these impacts are visible in COVID-19 case and death counts. As of June 1, 2021, over 33 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 and nearly 600,000 have died from the virus according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 202114). Even those who recover from COVID-19 are at risk of experiencing other mental and physical health symptoms, some of which lead to or are related to disability, such as persistent fatigue, difficulty thinking or concentrating, depression, anxiety, heart palpitations, or multisystem inflammatory syndrome (CDC, 202015). While much research around the extent of the long-term nature of these symptoms is emergent, recent data has found that one-third of COVID-19 survivors were diagnosed with a neurologic or psychiatric disorder six months after COVID-19 infection (Taquet et al., 202116).

Additional works show a growing percentage of COVID-19 unrelated impacts. Such work has indicated that, among American adults, rates of depression have tripled during the pandemic, rising from approximately 8.5% pre-pandemic to 27.8% as of April 2020 (Ettman et al., 202017). A similar CDC study (Vahratian et al., 202118) found an increase in symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder while adding that, “One in four adults who experienced these symptoms reported that they needed but did not receive counseling or therapy for their mental health” (p. 493).

There have been variable impacts of COVID-19 on FGCS students’ mental health and wellbeing. Some researchers found that FGCS students were more likely than non-FGCS students to report experiencing general anxiety and stress, significant depression, and a lower sense of wellbeing resulting from COVID-19 (Bono et al., 202019; Soria et al., 202020). However, Fruehwirth et al. (202121:) found that FGCS students reported lower levels of social isolation when returning home due to COVID-19, which was likely due to being connected with family.

FGCS have reported more financial hardships resulting from COVID-19 than non-FGCS (Bono et al., 2020; Fruehwirth et al., 2021; Soria et al., 2020). For example, FGCS more frequently reported personal wage loss, a loss in overall family income, and increased living expenses (Soria et al., 2020) due to COVID-19. The change in financial status is concerning since FGCS students are more likely to have low incomes and responsible for paying for their own education (Redford & Hoyer, 2017; Soria et al., 2020). With significant financial losses, there may be longer-term impacts on the persistence of FGCS in higher education.

Scholar J. Nadine Gracia (202022) asserted that COVID-19 has disproportionally impacted Black and Latinx communities. Garcia argued that this discrepancy stems almost entirely from historic and systemic racial and ethnic disparities. As indicated earlier, FGCS are more likely to be students of color, making them at higher risk of COVID-19, including related economic and mental health impacts.

College Students’ Barriers to Remote Instruction

College students described issues with remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barada and colleagues (202023) found evidence that despite most students having a computer (89.3%), only 41% reported that they consistently have a good internet connection and only one-third reported that they always had access to course study material. The authors concluded,

…older students, students who had a quiet place to study, a good Internet connection and material for studying at their disposal, as well as students with higher levels of digital and social bonding capital, consistently reported greater adjustment during the COVID-19 pandemic (p. 8).

Gonzalez-Ramirez et al. (202124:) also identified student barriers to remote instruction. They found that their sample of 121 students experienced the following challenges: wireless internet quality (60%), hardware (36%), video software (43%), other software (15%), finding a quiet space (71%), and finances (45%). Results of their logistic regression indicated that first-year students were more likely to have hardware problems and issues finding a quiet space. In contrast, commuter students were more likely to have financial problems.

We also found few instances in the literature that specifically identified the impact of COVID-19 on FGCS. FGCS reported difficulties with the transition to remote learning (Aucejo et al., 202025; Fruehwirth et al., 2021; Soria et al., 2020). For instance, Soria and colleagues (2020) reported that FGCS did not have access to technology and were unfamiliar with the technology needed for remote learning. FGCS also reported not having suitable study environments when returning home during COVID-19. This study adds to the literature as it provides interview data from students across five universities about their experiences at school almost nine months into the pandemic.


The research team conducted in-depth remote interviews with 49 FGCS from five higher-education institutions in the United States about their experiences on persisting through school during the COVID-19 pandemic. The universities varied in location, size, and type of institution (public or private). Participants were recruited for interviews if they indicated an interest in doing so after completing an online survey. Interviews followed a semi-structured format and lasted approximately 30 to 60 minutes. Participants were asked questions that addressed four broad areas related to their experiences as FGCS during the pandemic: (a) general schooling practices at their respective institutions; (b) changes to their academic circumstances (i.e., learning experiences, college persistence, and plans); (c) changes to their circumstances (i.e., health, wellbeing, living situation, and financial situation); and (d) their perceptions of how their institution addressed the pandemic. Participants also shared demographic information (major, minor, and year at school) at the beginning of the interviews.

Qualitative virtual interviews were conducted by undergraduate and graduate researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed using an online transcription service, then reviewed for accuracy and cleaned by members of the research team. Deidentified transcripts were then imported into NVivo Release 1 qualitative analysis software (QSR International Pty Ltd., 202026).

Two members of the research team conducted applied thematic analysis on the interviews to explore the experiences of the pandemic. This systematic and rigorous analysis identifies themes in a text by drawing from multiple theoretical and methodological perspectives, such as grounded theory, inductive thematic analysis, and phenomenology (Guest et al., 201227). This approach lends itself to applied research and enhances the quality of the qualitative data analysis by generating data-driven insights. We then developed a coding structure for interviews based on the interview agenda. Researchers read transcripts and identified themes separately, meeting regularly to discuss emerging themes and expanded the coding structure accordingly. After reaching a consensus about the codes, the final coding structure was entered into NVivo for analysis. To ensure reliability, three of the 49 interviews were double coded by both researchers, with the researchers meeting to reach agreement. The remaining interviews were divided between the two researchers to code. Meanwhile, the two researchers remained in regular contact to ensure consistency. After coding was complete, final codes were reviewed to ensure alignment with the research aims of the study. Illustrative quotes were then identified to represent common themes across interviews.


In this section, we discuss three of the most salient qualitative themes across the student interviews: (a) the impact of the pandemic on students’ health, (b) their experiences with remote learning, and (c) their perceptions of how their school responded to the pandemic.


Students were asked about how they experienced changes to their health, including physically and mentally. In line with recent research, nearly all students in the interview sample reported a physical or mental health impact or both. Evidence of contributors to health impacts, namely stress, emerged in other topics of interest, including changes to student living situations or disruptions to work.

Students living in dormitories found themselves moving back home or finding off-campus housing and roommates. In some cases, this involved multiple moves as universities brought students back to on-campus housing and then sent them home once more. Some students moved back home due to their parents’ concerns around COVID-19 or because students needed to help with responsibilities at home, such as taking care of younger siblings or older family members with health issues. Students living off-campus sometimes found themselves in need of new living arrangements due to abrupt changes with roommates. In other cases, students were already at home when the pandemic hit or had extended family moving in, thus increasing housing occupancy. These changes contributed to student stress in several ways, including lack of appropriate resources to complete work, lack of privacy, and general disruptions to learning.

Many students also found themselves facing disruptions to their work. These disruptions included changes to hours (and therefore pay), job responsibilities, and employment status. In some cases, these changes contributed to significant adjustments in their living situations. One student recounted their transition from fully employed to couch-surfing:

I had lost my jobs; I had three... I’ve never missed one [rent] payment. I’ve never been late, staying here for a year now [My landlord’s] response to me was... you still had to pay your rent on the first.

Changes to work and living situations can be stressful even outside of a pandemic. Here, such changes contribute to ongoing stress during a time of prolonged uncertainty. Student responses about direct health impacts can be categorized into those related to physical and mental health. We found that these dimensions interact with each other, where changes in physical health influenced mental health, or vice versa. When discussing physical health, students most often referenced changes to their eating, fitness level, or disruption to their sleep. Students discussed mental health impacts in terms of anxiety, depression, stress, and feelings of loneliness. Some students mentioned that specific symptoms, like depression, anxiety, or disordered eating, existed before the pandemic but were greatly exacerbated. In an example of the interplay between mental and physical health, one student shared their experience:

I noticed there was a change in my eating habits. So, at first when the pandemic started, with eating more, but then, as you know, coming into the fall semester and living in my own apartment, I noticed that I wasn’t eating as much because I was very isolated. … And just being very isolated, it was really hard. So, I noticed that my mental health declined drastically as well.

Students who reported disruptions to their sleep often did so alongside some feelings of stress resulting from how the pandemic impacted their lives. Some students reported that their sleep improved over time, though issues persisted for others. As one student shared, “Toward the end of the semester, I’ve been feeling very stressed out. And I’ve had situations where due to sleep troubles, I’ve almost failed classes at the last second.”

Students spoke of mental health mainly in terms of stress, anxiety, and lowered personal or academic motivation. The pandemic generated large amounts of stress for students. In addition to the aforementioned changes to work and living situations, many students felt a near-constant stress or anxiety around their families or friends contracting COVID-19. Many students knew friends or family that had contracted the disease, and a small number of interviewees explicitly mentioned that they were COVID-19 survivors themselves. A few students even knew friends, family, or coworkers that died as a result of COVID-19. One student shared their family’s experience: “A great percentage of my family, like my cousins, they live in a country where COVID was really, really bad…so my entire family actually caught COVID-19 in that country…and I actually lost family members.”

A student from another university shared how COVID-19 and deaths from the virus impacted them in their workplace. The student stated, “We kept getting cases of people getting COVID. And I’m just like, I’m scared. Like, my life is in danger…Someone [at my workplace] literally died [from] COVID.”

For some students, a lack of motivation was tied to feelings of depression or stress, and for others, the feeling was more related to feelings of overall fatigue. This lack of motivation influenced their lives generally, in terms of their academics or as it related to physical fitness (such as gym activity or eating). As one student shared, it was difficult to succeed academically when “sometimes it’s kind of hard to get out of bed.” Another student shared an expansion on this sentiment:

I had to stay on top of my work…it made the whole situation a lot harder because I also had to find the motivation within to do the work because I didn’t really have anybody, you know, telling me to do the work…it was all on me to find motivation to take care of my health and take all my medicines and stay on top of my schoolwork. So that also affected me physically and mentally.

Interestingly, not all students reported only negative changes to their physical or mental health. A small number of students felt that they had begun making healthier choices due to the pandemic. Some students found themselves with more time to go to the gym, eat healthier, or experience positive relationships with their families after moving back home. Other students highlighted particular mitigating aids to health impacts. Many of these were idiosyncratic, such as spending time with pets, restarting gym activity as COVID-19 restrictions changed, or leaning into the structure of their online classes. More commonly mentioned aids included seeking mental healthcare such as therapy, returning to on-campus courses as permitted, or embracing their new-found time alone as an opportunity for reflection. Speaking about mental healthcare, one student shared the positive influence of reconnecting with their therapist, stating, “I was having a lot more anxiety, definitely dealing with more depression. But since I’ve been able to keep up with therapy again, that’s definitely improved.”

Returning to campus with peers allowed students to build a sense of camaraderie out of the shared pandemic experience:

I’ve done a pretty good job with kind of dealing with the stress. And you know, a lot of that has come from like, going back to school and being able to kind of struggle together with my friends who were all trying to deal with the pandemic while, you know, still doing well during the fall semester.

Having time alone or opportunities for reflection helped students feel more at ease with their situation. For one student, this helped not just with stress but their mental state: “I feel like a lot of free time is what I needed to like, get my mind where it needs to be…I think I’m just like, more comfortable with myself.”

Overall, students reported varying degrees of mental and physical health impacts as a result of the pandemic. These ranged the gamut from extreme stress to disordered eating, where students often expressed these impacts as intertwined experiences. These health impacts extended to their academic work for many students, with respondents feeling as if they were falling behind in their studies or feeling unmotivated to engage in their courses as they usually would. In a few instances, we saw FGCS whose mental and physical health improved during COVID-19 due to reconnections with themselves or their family.

The Impact of Remote Learning

As indicated earlier, FGCS shared that being isolated from peers and campus negatively affected their wellbeing and motivation for daily activities. Interview respondents described a general malaise about schoolwork and academics once schools transitioned to remote operations. Many students described feeling apathetic and unmotivated by online learning, stemming from the lack of structure in the virtual environment. As one student explained:

I'd normally like to wake up early in the morning to get my things done. But like, this semester, since I wasn't really going anywhere, I'd wake up like right before class started. And then I start my day like that. And then because of that, I would not make breakfast until after class. Everything was just a lot less efficient than normal because I wasn't doing anything like I was supposed to be [doing until] really late.

Several other students also shared similar changes to their schedules and productivity when they were not required to attend classes in person. Only two respondents preferred attending school in an online format. This was due to both having complicating factors in their personal lives, such as health issues and full-time employment. All other participants overwhelmingly shared their strong preference for attending classes face-to-face rather than online.

This lack of structure also influenced students’ study habits. Most reported that they were not retaining information from online classes in the same way as before. Many others added that they were not putting forth the same effort in completing assignments and preparing for exams as they would have been during non-pandemic times. One student summarized this shift:

Prior to the pandemic, I had the mindset that I was actually going to try to learn from every single [one] of my classes, not just cram for class and then forget it after the test. The pandemic really affected that because I just found myself not as motivated as I normally am. I'm just literally cramming before a test, and I'm not retaining the information that's kind of important to me, especially my major.

Even during online classes, students reported that they struggled to stay engaged. A student explained how virtual learning affected their learning and attention:

There's a lot less accountability when you're over Zoom than when you're in an in-person class. You can't be on your phone as much as I was. Can I watch Netflix and listen to lectures at the same time? Yes, I did. I don't think I learned what I wanted, like half or even like a third as much as I would have in a regular semester.

Some students added that living with family again created additional responsibilities and distractions that kept them from focusing on assignments. For a few students, these responsibilities included caring for relatives or working to contribute to household expenses. Moreover, some students reported not having a dedicated, quiet space for studying and attending classes at home. In addition to the individual changes in learning, students also reported feeling that the quality of teaching and content changed when schools shifted to remote instruction. Several students noted that professors struggled with managing technology and delivering material virtually. Students remarked that watching professors online showed them how arduous teaching in the virtual environment was. While most students did not blame professors for technological difficulties or low engagement during classes, a few felt that professors did not return this sense of empathy to students during their struggles with remote learning.

Others noted that having reliable internet and feeling comfortable turning on their cameras was challenging during the pandemic. Students felt uncomfortable with showing their peers and professors where they lived, which would likely show their undersupplied learning environment. One student shared that a professor kicked students out of class for not turning on their camera. The student recalled:

On the first day of class, [the professor] was like, ‘You have to have your camera on.’ And if your camera is not on… he kicked you out, and he really stressed this. He would be like, ‘Yeah, it's so fun to kick students out.’ [Students in the class asked], ‘What if we have to do something at this time that we can't have our camera on? He's like, ‘Well, you chose the class. You had a choice in choosing this class. You chose the time in the day, so anything that comes in between that isn't really my problem.’

Students reported other losses related to not being face-to-face with instructors and peers during classes. Many lamented not being able to network and socialize with other students in class and wished they could visit professors’ office hours to seek additional help or build relationships. In particular, students in STEM fields, those with labs, and others whose majors required hands-on experiences reported feeling frustrated that their learning opportunities were limited due to campus closures.

Overall, participants struggled with adjusting to remote learning. Students described a lack of structure or interest in participating in the online format and identified the content and quality of teaching as a barrier to learning. As students attempted to manage their schooling, many had suggestions for ways to improve their learning.

School Response to the Pandemic

Students provided variable responses regarding how their college or university navigated the pandemic and school closures; this variability was present not only across but within the same institution. In our analyses, we did not observe a strong case for other responses in the interview (e.g., sense of belonging, major, year at school, living situation) that reliably predicted how students answered questions about their schools’ management and support during the pandemic. Participants’ reasoning for their perceptions also varied greatly. Some of the themes that emerged from participants’ answers about their schools’ response to the pandemic included: (a) health and safety guidelines and practices; (b) financial concerns, such as food insecurity, tuition and fees, and housing; and (c) academic supports and accountability.

First, some students wished health and safety standards for students who were still present on campus were less strict, but others felt these new regulations were not strict enough. For example, two students who attended the same institution had vastly different opinions on how their school tried to enforce social distancing for students who were physically on campus during Fall 2020. One participant, who worked in a dormitory for transfer students, said they wished their residents had more opportunities to socialize and get involved in activities rather than being confined to their living space with limited access to other places on campus. On the other hand, another student from the same school felt the restrictions were not sufficient, nor that they were adequately enforced. This second student also argued that too many opportunities for socialization created risks for spreading the virus. At one point, when cases were low, the university lifted its curfew and restrictions requiring students to remain on campus. Of this, the student recalled, “I wish they had just kept that curfew…a lot of people can contract this virus and bring it back to campus.”

Second, participants seemed more in agreement about how their school poorly addressed financial concerns during the pandemic. Seven of eight participants from one school reported feeling that their school did not understand their needs. Several students were frustrated when their school raised the cost of the smallest mandatory meal plan for students on campus in Fall 2020. Another student recalled driving to the parking lot of their local library to access the internet for remote classes. This student said, “[This college] has a largely affluent population, but there are still low-income students here that they need to be mindful of.”

Finally, we observed stark differences in how students felt about the academic support they received during remote instruction, with some praising the efforts of professors, librarians, and administrators in easing the transition, while others criticized them. For example, of the professors at their school, one student shared, “They do care. They do check up on us academically, personally, even [our] emotional and mental health.”

Conversely, another student shared the opposite sentiment about the academic support they received. The student stated, “

...their responses…just seems very clinical…and it lacks the empathy that we need and understanding that we need, and it’s very apparent that, I think, they are still just trying to operate as though nothing has changed. And we…the students are having to figure out how to cope with that change with no support from our professors or the university officials.

While students’ perceptions varied widely as a whole, one common theme among all participants was how important it was for their schools to consider their experiences and perspectives when making decisions and establishing new policies.


Higher education institutions must examine, and potentially re-evaluate, how the availability of their mental health services are communicated to students. During such an uncertain time, it can be difficult for FGCS to navigate online resources without direction. Institutions should also ensure that their outreach regarding services is directed to all students, not just those in more apparent need of help. The stigma around mental health issues can prevent students more generally, and potentially FGCS specifically, from looking for assistance themselves. Institutions must also evaluate the forms of support provided (i.e., telehealth, student support groups) and do so with FGCS input. As mentioned in other recommendations, colleges—both broadly and by individual professors—should look to ways to reduce cognitive workload on students, along with flexible deadlines for completion of coursework. A combination of strict deadlines, increased workload, and overall student stress contribute to worse academic outcomes as well as increased negative mental health symptoms. Perhaps most importantly, colleges should maintain a high caliber of mental health supports well after the pandemic ends. Mental health disorders, and the experience of negative mental health symptoms, are long-lasting and have the potential to become chronic concerns. Institutions should not set an end date for improved standards around mental health supports.

Acknowledging the mental health impact of COVID-19 on FGCS is an essential first step, but it cannot be the only step taken by college administrators. The work presented in this report is not alone in finding that FGCS and their peers’ mental health has been adversely influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the focus of our report is first-generation students, undergraduate and graduate students more broadly have seen an increase in symptoms related to depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts (Wang et al., 202028), and other findings suggest such mental health distress among students has persisted well into the pandemic (Neal, 202129). Though not a specified population in the findings of these studies, FGCS are undoubtedly represented. As with the work presented here, these other studies indicate that mental health impacts have negatively hindered academic success; by better addressing mental health concerns, colleges can also improve academic outcomes.

Additionally, faculty and administrators must recognize that preparing for remote instruction is more time-consuming than face-to-face learning, and reducing the cognitive load for faculty would also be beneficial. Administrators can provide faculty with best practices for teaching from home and greater support for these endeavors, along with the recognition that faculty are “second-line responders [who]…are in the under-recognized and unanticipated position of having to mediate this multitude of student needs, which is further complicated by the indefinacy of an evolving situation” (Neuwirth et al., 2020, p.630). Many faculty want to support their students' emotional needs better, yet they may also be experiencing similar challenges without anyone to fulfill this supportive function in their lives. For this reason, expanding options for both student and faculty social support networks and mental health services is essential.

Whether preparing for a return to in-person classes, continuing remote learning, or developing something in between, administrators should conduct a needs assessment of students (with particular attention paid to sub-populations, such as FGCS) and faculty as various aspects of their lives may be in flux (e.g., caregiving responsibilities, financial changes, change in residency).


  1. Raid, J. & Norris, F. (1996). The influence of relocation on the environmental, social, and psychological stress experienced by disaster victims. Environment and Behavior, 28, 163-182. 

  2. Bateman, J.M. & Edwards, B. (2002). Gender and evacuation: A closer look at why women are more likely to evacuate for hurricanes. Natural Hazards Review 3(3) 107-117. 

  3. Sattler, D.N., Preston A.J., Kaiser, C.F. Olivera, V.E., Valdez, J., & Schlueter, S. (2002). Hurricane Georges: A cross-national study examining preparedness, resource loss, and psychological distress in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republican, and the United States. Journal of Traumatic Stress 15, 339-350. 

  4. Zhang, Y., Prater, C.S., & Lindell, M.K. (2004). Risk area accuracy and evacuation from Hurricane Bret. Natural Hazards Review, 8, 115-120. 

  5. Lohfink, M. M., & Paulsen, M. B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409-428. 

  6. Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C. T., Wolniak, G. C., & Terenzini, P. T. (2004). First-generation college students: Additional evidence on college experiences and outcomes. The Journal of Higher Education, 75(3), 249-284. 

  7. Redford, J., & Hoyer, K. M. (2017). First-generation and continuing-generation college students: A comparison of high school and postsecondary experiences. National Center for Education Statistics. 

  8. Terenzini, P. T., Springer, L., Yaeger, P. M., Pascarella, E. T., & Nora, A. (1996). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Research in Higher education, 37(1), 1-22. 

  9. Toutkoushian, R. K., May-Trifiletti, J. A., & Clayton, A. B. (2021). From “First in Family” to “First to Finish”: Does College Graduation Vary by How First-Generation College Status Is Defined?. Educational Policy, 35(3), 481–521. 

  10. DeAngelo, L., & Franke, R. (2016). Social mobility and reproduction for whom? College readiness and first-year retention. American Educational Research Journal, 53(6), 1588-1625. 

  11. Phillips, L. T., Stephens, N. M., Townsend, S. S., & Goudeau, S. (2020). Access is not enough: Cultural mismatch persists to limit first-generation students’ opportunities for achievement throughout college. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(5), 1112–1131. 

  12. Postsecondary National Policy Institute. (2021, February 1). Factsheets: First-Generation Students. PNPI. 

  13. Havlik, S., Pulliam, N., Malott, K., & Steen, S. (2020). Strengths and struggles: First-generation college-goers persisting at one predominantly white institution. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 22(1), 118-140. 

  14. CDC. (2021). United States COVID-19 Cases, Deaths, and Laboratory Testing (RT-PCR) by State, Territory, and Jurisdiction. 

  15. CDC. (2020, November 13). Coronavirus Disease: Long-Term Effects. Retrieved December 2020. 

  16. Taquet, M., Geddes, J. R., Husain, M., Luciano, S., & Harrison, P. J. (2021). 6-month neurological and psychiatric outcomes in 236,379 survivors of COVID-19: a retrospective cohort study using electronic health records. Lancet Psychiatry, 8, 416-427. 

  17. Ettman, C. K., Abdalla, S. M., Cohen, G. H., Sampson, L., Vivier, P. M., & Galea, S. (2020). Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Network Open, 3(9):e2019686. https://doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686. 

  18. Vahratian, A., Blumberg, S., Terlizzi, E., & Schiller, J. (2021). Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic - United States, August 2020-February 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, 70, 490–494. 

  19. Bono, G., Reil, K., & Hescox, J. (2020). Stress and wellbeing in urban college students in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic: Can grit and gratitude help?. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(3). 

  20. Soria, K. M., Horgos, B., Chirikov, I., & Jones-White, D. (2020). First-generation students’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. SERU Consortium, University of California - Berkeley and University of Minnesota. 

  21. Fruehwirth, J. C., Biswas, S., & Perreira, K. M. (2021). The Covid-19 pandemic and mental health of first-year college students: Examining the effect of Covid-19 stressors using longitudinal data. PloS one, 16(3), e0247999. 

  22. Gracia, J. (2020). COVID-19's Disproportionate impact on Communities of Color Spotlights the Nation's Systemic Inequities. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 26(6): 518-521. 

  23. Barada, V., Doolan, K., Burić, I., Krolo, K., & Tonković, Ž. (2020). Student life during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown: Europe-Wide Insights. University of Zadar. 

  24. Gonzalez-Ramirez, J., Mulqueen, K., Zealand, R., Silverstein, S., Mulqueen, C., & BuShell, S. (2021). Emergency Online Learning: College Students' Perceptions During the COVID-19 Pandemic. College Student Journal, 55(1), 29-46. 

  25. Aucejo, E. M., French, J., Araya, M. P. U., & Zafar, B. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student experiences and expectations: Evidence from a survey. Journal of Public Economics, 191, 1-15. 

  26. QSR International Pty Ltd. (2020). NVivo (Release 1). 

  27. Guest, G., MacQueen, K. M., & Namey, E. E. (2012). Applied Thematic Analysis. Thousand Oaks: California. 

  28. Wang, X., Hegde, S., Son, C., Keller, B., Smith, A., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Investigating Mental Health of US College Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Cross-Sectional Survey Study. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22(9), e22817. doi: 10.2196/22817 

  29. Neal, K. (2021, March 16). TimelyMD Survey Finds 4 of 5 College Students Still Stressed by COVID-19 After One Year. TimelyMD. 

  30. Neuwirth, L. S., Jović, S., & Mukherji, B. R. (2020). Reimagining higher education during and post-COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education. 

Suggested Citation:

Davis, C., Griffard, M., Long, R., Turner, M., Hartman, H., Sexton, J., Norton, T., Méndez, D., & Méndez, J. (2021) College Persistence During a Pandemic: Supporting First Generation Students in Reaching Graduation (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 330). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Davis, C., Griffard, M., Long, R., Turner, M., Hartman, H., Sexton, J., Norton, T., Méndez, D., & Méndez, J. (2021) College Persistence During a Pandemic: Supporting First Generation Students in Reaching Graduation (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 330). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.