College Students, Faculty, and Academic Advisors During COVID-19
Mental Health and Sense of Purpose
Publication Date: 2021
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the United States is a disaster event—a sudden event that causes great damage or loss of life. The COVID-19 crisis has posed significant physical, social, financial, and mental health risks to college students in being able to complete their education. To date, findings on how to support the recovery of college students after disasters are limited. Therefore, it is not clear how to best respond to college student needs during and after disasters such as COVID-19. To address these gaps, this study aimed to collect perishable data on the responses of college students, faculty, and academic advisors to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. We sought to answer the following research questions: (a) What is the impact of COVID-19 on college students? and (b) How can faculty and academic advisors best support college students during disaster events such as COVID-19? Our research team administered an online survey to collect quantitative data and conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews to collect qualitative data. A total of 256 undergraduate college students and 40 faculty and/or academic advisors participated in the study. We evaluated student, faculty, and academic advisor reports of COVID-19 stressors, life stressors, and perceived stress and their relationship to mental health outcomes (depressive and anxiety symptoms and sense of purpose). Preliminary findings indicated that college students experienced on average 8.2 COVID-19 stressors, and faculty and/or academic advisors experienced on average 8.0 COVID-19 stressors. Additional initial findings indicated that perceived stress as a psychological measure is a potential mechanism that links stressors with student depression, anxiety, and sense of purpose. These findings have implications for both research and practice.
Introduction and Literature Review
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the United States is a disaster event—a sudden event that causes great damage or loss of life. The COVID-19 crisis poses risks to college students’ physical health (Murphy, 20201). To mitigate this threat, institutions of higher education across the United States rapidly transitioned to remote classes at the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020 (Mervosh & Swales, 20202).
The COVID-19 disaster poses risks to college students that extend far beyond physical health risks, however. Disasters cause financial and psychological stress and disrupt social support networks (Bonanno et al., 20063; Self-Brown et al., 20134). These consequences are all risk factors for dropping out of college (Bruffaerts et al., 20185; Rowan-Kenyon et al., 20176; Stewart et al., 20157). When college students are able to complete their degrees during a disaster, it has enormous economic and public health benefits. Students who complete their degrees earn more, are healthier and happier, and have greater confidence (Arnett, 20138; Heckler, 20189; Leonhardt & Chinoy, 201910).
There are two critical barriers that limit progress in helping college students complete their degrees when faced with disasters like COVID-19. First, there is a lack of empirical knowledge about the impacts of disasters on college students. A large body of evidence shows that disasters have significant impacts on institutions of higher education in terms of educational disruption and structural failure (e.g., damage to school buildings). This work highlights the importance of institutions of higher education and schools as critical infrastructure, socioeconomic infrastructure, physical capital, and lifelines (Bach et al., 201311; Cutter et al., 201012; Peacock, 201013; Rifai, 201214). Although extremely important, this work focuses on the emergency management of institutions of higher education and does not provide insight into how to support the recovery of college students after disasters.
Second, a small but growing body of literature concerning schools and disasters provides insight into factors that could apply to college students, but this work is limited to K–12 settings. Lai (co-principal investigator of this study) was the principal investigator of a study that analyzed academic outcomes among 462 Texas K–12 public schools after Hurricane Ike (Lai et al., 201915; Lai et al., 201816). In that study, 9.4% of K–12 schools showed students failing to return to their pre-disaster levels of academic functioning. Specific factors (e.g., attendance, percentage of economically disadvantaged youth) were significantly associated with said failure (Lai et al., 2019; Lai et al., 2018). Similarly, Sacerdote (200817) examined data from children in K–12 schools after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Sacerdote found that in some cases, transferring to a new school after the disasters benefited student academic outcomes (2008). Finally, Tobin (201918) evaluated educational continuity among K–12 schools in Lyons, Colorado after the 2013 Colorado Floods. Tobin found that dedicated support from multiple levels of student environments was critical to student recovery. In short, evidence on supporting students after disasters is limited to K–12 settings and exists primarily in the context of mandatory education. Neither the setting nor the context directly translates to college students and institutions of higher education.
Taken together, these gaps in research hinder the identification of effective strategies to respond to college student needs during disasters. The COVID-19 crisis has presented us with a critical opportunity to collect perishable data on college student and faculty responses to the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. In this study, we collected, and are currently analyzing, a rich array of quantitative and qualitative data. Our long-term goal is to create innovative, evidence-informed pedagogical tools to help stakeholders prepare for disasters in advance, thus minimizing the effects of future disasters on college students.
What is the impact of COVID-19 on college students? We collected perishable quantitative and qualitative data on students attending COVID-19–affected institutions of higher education. We focused on exploring specific factors that could impact student outcomes. Examples of student outcomes include dropping out of college, delaying their programs of study, or continuing with their courses of study. The factors we explored were:
- Potentially negative events or conditions (e.g., disruption in courses, financial strain, disruption of social networks, psychological distress)
- Meaning-making and purpose formation
- Protective factors (e.g., clear communication, financial grants, pedagogical tools)
How can faculty and academic advisors best support college students during crises like COVID-19? We collected quantitative and qualitative data from faculty and academic advisors at institutions of higher education in order to understand their educational experiences during the COVID-19 outbreak. We focused on exploring how these experiences might shape approaches to advising college students during future disasters.
The research team, which consisted of faculty and students at Boston College, conducted the research for this study remotely. Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we conducted all research remotely to protect the health and safety of participants and research staff.
Sample Size and Participants
This study was approved by the Boston College Institutional Review Board. The principal investigators were Betty Lai, Ph.D. and Belle Liang, Ph.D. Participants completed electronic consent forms. They were recruited through convenience and snowball sampling.
To be eligible for the study, participants had to be: (a) over the age of 18, (b) students, faculty, or academic advisors, and (c) enrolled in or working at a college or university that cancelled in-person classes due to COVID-19. To eliminate potential conflicts of interest, we excluded affiliates of Boston College from the study. Eligible participants were entered into a raffle for one of five $40 gift cards upon survey completion.
Of the 274 college students who completed the survey, 19 were excluded because they were graduate students (n=18) or did not indicate their school role (n=1). The final student study sample consisted of 256 students (M[age]=21). Students included in this sample completed the demographic questionnaire and at least one other measure. Eighty-three percent of these students identified as female, and 27% were first generation college students. With regard to race/ethnicity, 63% of students identified as White, 11% as Black/African American, 9% as Hispanic/Latinx, 10% as Asian, 6% as multi-racial, and 1% as other.
In addition, 40 faculty and academic advisors completed the survey. Faculty and academic advisors included in this sample also completed the demographic questionnaire and at least one other measure. Eighty-five percent of these faculty and academic advisors identified as female. Fifty-five percent were tenure-track faculty, 34% were non-tenure track faculty, and 11% were academic advisors. With regard to race/ethnicity, 68% of faculty and/or academic advisors identified as White, 15% as Black/African American, 3% as Hispanic/Latinx, 10% as Asian, 2% as multi-racial, and 2% as other.
Data, Methods, and Procedures
This study characterized the experiences of college students (Research Question 1) and faculty and academic advisors working directly with students (Research Question 2) during the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States. To address these questions, we collected data via quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews.
Sampling and Recruitment
We used convenience and snowball sampling to recruit participants via online posts and social media. Eligibility criteria included being a college student or faculty and/or academic advisor over 18 years of age at a U.S. institution of higher learning that cancelled in-person classes due to COVID-19.
College students, faculty and academic advisors completed an online survey. This survey included measures of:
- Demographics, developed by the authors for this study
- COVID-19 stressors, based on a measure developed by researchers at the University of Washington (Errett et al., 202119)
- Life stressors, from the Life Events Scale for Students (Linden, 198420)
- Perceived stress, based on the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen et al., 198321)
- Depression, based on the Patient Health Questionnaire-8 (Kroenke et al., 200922)
- Anxiety, based on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Screener-7 (Spitzer et al., 200623)
- Sense of purpose, based on the Claremont Purpose Scale (Bronk et al., 201824)
- Ccoping, based on the Coping and Adaptation Processing Scale - Short Form (Roy et al., 201625)
- Social support, based on the Multidimensional Scale of Perceived Social Support (Zimet et al., 198826)
- Institution trust, based on the Institution Mistrust Measure (Price et al., 201327)
We coded collected data in accordance with the scoring guidelines for each measure.
We used a purposive sampling approach to invite participants who completed the survey to participate in an optional qualitative interview. We conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews via videoconferencing. Participants received $20/hour as an incentive for participation.
Our research team developed two interview question protocols and deposited them in DesignSafe. The interview protocols are available at https://doi.org/10.17603/ds2-erzs-j690 (Hoskova, Medzhitova, et al., 202028). We sought to identify barriers and facilitators for student success to help faculty and academic advisors understand how to best support college students during disaster events. We were interested in these overarching questions:
(a) What disaster-related barriers do students face in completing their degrees during COVID-19?
(b) Which of these barriers are faculty and/or academic advisors positioned to address?
(c) What do faculty and/or academic advisors need to help students affected by COVID-19 and disasters in general?
(d) What challenges and supports do faculty and/or academic advisors encounter when assisting students after COVID-19 and other disasters?
(e) What lessons do students and faculty and/or academic advisors want to share with those who may be affected by disasters in the future?
Our first manuscript from this study is in press. As described in that manuscript (Lai et al., in press), we had two aims for our initial quantitative analysis.
Aim 1: Describe the impact of the COVID-19 disaster on college students
To address Aim 1, we conducted analyses with IBM SPSS Statistics (Version 26) software. We used T-tests to compare study variables by gender and by minoritized ethnic/racial identity status. We also computed Pearson correlation coefficients to assess potential relationships between participant demographics, COVID-19 stressors, life stressors, perceived stress, and mental health outcomes (i.e., depression, anxiety, and sense of purpose).
Aim 2: Identify potential mechanisms mediating the relationship between COVID-19 stressors and college student outcomes, testing a disaster conceptual model
We evaluated the disaster conceptual model using structural equation modeling in Mplus Version 8.1 (Muthén & Muthén, 201729). We used an alpha level of .05 for all hypothesis tests, and we used maximum likelihood estimation to estimate missing data. (pp. 10-11)
Interview Content Analysis
We audio recorded and transcribed 41 semi-structured in-depth interviews. Of these interviews, we conducted 31 with students and 10 with faculty and academic advisors. Qualitative analysis of the student interview data is ongoing. Using content analysis as our analytic approach, we are generating codes (i.e., summarizing key information from each interview) as a team. Our next step is to identify common themes across codes. We will group these codes together under relevant themes. We will identify overarching content areas (i.e., domains), under which we will group themes. Qualitative papers on student experiences during the COVID-19 crisis will be among the key outcomes of this work. The first will focus on the influence of COVID-related stress on students of color.
Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations
We carefully considered research positionality in this work. Interviewers for our study were graduate students trained in semi-structured interviewing. We did not include our undergraduate research team members as interviewers, given the fact that they were also undergraduate students impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. Considering the possibility that participants might present with considerable distress when discussing the impacts of COVID-19, we created a crisis plan whereby interviewers would reach out to one of two licensed psychologists on the research team in the event that a participant became distressed. We gave participants the opportunity to turn off their video if that was their preference, and we reiterated during interviews that participation was voluntary.
Our preliminary findings reflect quantitative data collected in April and May 2020 via our online survey. We present these findings in Figure 1 and Figure 2. Figure 1 pertains to undergraduate students, while Figure 2 pertains to faculty and academic advisors. We described the demographic characteristics of each participant group in the “Sample Size and Participants” section of this report.
Preliminary analyses of the undergraduate student sample (n=256) indicated that students experienced an average of 8.2 COVID-19 stressors (out of a possible 14) at the outset of the COVID-19 disaster. The most frequently reported COVID-19 stressors were concerns about an at-risk family member getting sick (94%), family members being socially isolated (79%), the respondent getting sick (79%), the respondent being socially isolated (71%), not being able to work (70%), and a family member being unable to pay bills (69%). Regarding mental health, 91% of students experienced moderate to high stress (PSS score > 13), 31% experienced moderate to severe anxiety (GAD-7 score > 9), and 53% experienced moderate to severe depression (PHQ-8 score > 9). When asked how clear their sense of purpose was, 11% of students responded that it was extremely clear, 29% that it was quite clear, 39% that it was somewhat clear, 16% that it was a little bit clear, and 5% that it was not at all clear. Lastly, when asked how important it was for them to make the world a better place, 48% of students endorsed that it was extremely important, 35% that it was quite important, 11% that it was somewhat important, 5% that it was a little bit important, and 1% that it was not at all important.
Figure 1. Key Student-Related Study Data
(Colgan et al., 202030)
Faculty and/or Academic Advisors
Preliminary analyses of the faculty and academic advisor sample (n=40) indicated that faculty and academic advisors experienced an average of 8.0 COVID-19 stressors at the outset of the COVID-19 disaster. The most frequently reported COVID-19 stressors were concerns about an at-risk family member getting sick (95%), the respondent getting sick (88%), family members being socially isolated (80%), the inability to access health care for a new condition (73%), the inability to access healthcare for COVID-19 (63%), and the respondent’s inability to pay bills (63%). Regarding mental health, 72% of faculty and/or academic advisors experienced moderate to high stress (PSS score > 13), 31% experienced moderate to severe anxiety (GAD-7 score > 9), and 28% experienced moderate to severe depression (PHQ-8 score > 9). When asked how clear their sense of purpose was, 18% of faculty and/or academic advisors responded that it was extremely clear, 50% that it was quite clear, 24% that it was somewhat clear, 5% that it was a little bit clear, and 3% that it was not at all clear. When asked how important it was for them to make the world a better place, 39% of faculty and/or academic advisors endorsed that it was extremely important, 45% that it was quite important, 16% that it was somewhat important, and no faculty nor academic advisor reported that making the world a better place was a little bit important or not at all important. Follow-up analyses (ongoing) are evaluating qualitative responses from faculty and/or advisors regarding strategies that have helped staff better support undergraduate students.
Figure 2. Key Faculty- and Academic Advisor-Related Study Data
(Hoskova, Colgan, Kang, et al., 202031)
Our first manuscript from this study (Lai et al., in press) indicated that perceived stress as a mental health measure is a factor that links number of stressors to student depression, anxiety, and sense of purpose.
Our analysis also indicated that a significantly greater proportion of non-White students, when compared to White students, endorsed feeling somewhat or very concerned about the following COVID-19 stressors: receiving healthcare and a family member losing their job. These analyses also indicated that a significantly greater proportion of Hispanic/Latinx students reported feeling somewhat or very concerned about these same COVID-19 stressors when compared to all other non-White students and White students. Qualitative analyses are ongoing.
Key Findings and Implications for Practice
In this study, students and faculty and/or academic advisors reported a variety of COVID-19 stressors and life stressors. In addition, students and faculty and/or academic advisors reported not only high levels of mental depression and anxiety, but also a high sense of purpose. If faculty and/or advisors are considered as potential front-line professionals that work with students, strategies to address burnout and stress are needed. These findings indicate that all, students, faculty, and academic advisors, need support. Additional ongoing analyses will evaluate barriers and facilitators of student success from student and faculty and/or academic advisor perspectives. This study underscores the importance of colleges and universities prioritizing mental health support for students, faculty and academic advisors as they navigate the long-term impacts of COVID-19.
Dissemination of Findings
We are committed to disseminating findings from this work to engage with key stakeholders. To date, we have disseminated our findings in the following ways:
Development of Infographics: We developed two infographics (Figure 1 and Figure 2; see “Findings” section below for data summary), which are linked on our website. In addition to posting them on our website, we sent the infographics to study participants and posted them on social media.
Peer-Reviewed Papers: Peer-reviewed papers are a key avenue through which we disseminate our findings. Thus far, we generated a quantitative paper to analyze perceived stress as a potential mechanism by which we can link number of stressors to student mental health and sense of purpose (Lai et al., in press). Additionally, we are currently developing a qualitative paper to analyze the experiences of minoritized students during COVID-19. We plan to disseminate additional quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods papers.
Publishing Protocols: To increase the reach of this work, we published our interview protocol (Hoskova, Medzhitova, et al., 2020) in the DesignSafe Data Depot. We plan to continue adding the materials we use in our study, such as the codebook for our quantitative data.
Poster Presentations: We have also submitted conference poster presentations to disseminate our findings. We presented a poster on the findings from our infographics at the 2020 Boston College Advancing Research and Scholarship Day (Aubé et al., 202032), where the audience included undergraduate college students. Additionally, we presented a poster on some of our findings at the American Psychological Association (APA) 2021 Convention. In that poster presentation, we assessed the COVID-19 stressors reported by minoritized college students in the United States. We plan to present additional posters at future conferences.
Conference Presentations: We have presented preliminary findings and study methodology at the 2020 Researchers Meeting (Hoskova, Colgan, Medzhitova, et al., 202033) and plan to present additional findings as part of a symposium at the APA 2021 Convention.
The study had several limitations. First, it was based on snowball sampling and convenience sampling. As such, findings may not generalize to all college students in the United States. In addition, this study was based on U.S. college students. Findings may therefore not apply to students in other countries. Further, data were self-reported. The inclusion of administrative data in future studies would strengthen findings.
Future Research Directions
Future directions for this work include analyzing longitudinal data and collaborating with researchers who conducted studies of college students in countries other than the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, future work should seek to understand how institutions can collaborate to jointly support students following future disaster-related events.
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