How COVID-19 Changed Higher Education

What Parents of College Students Should Expect Going Forward

College student studying

Jacob Ammentorp Lund / iStockphoto

During the peak of the pandemic, colleges and universities were among the most impacted organizations in the country. Not only were the majority of them forced to shut down their campuses and send their students home, but they also had to instantaneously change how they were educating students.

Classes went online and universities did their best to get comfortable with teaching and learning over video-conferencing apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. They also canceled in-person activities and got creative with how to engage students.

But, now that the majority of U.S. states and territories have administered nearly 75% of their first doses of the vaccine, what changes can parents of college students expect? Will things finally go back to normal? Here's what you can expect to see on college campuses this fall.

Vaccination Incentives and Requirements

Some universities are requiring students to be vaccinated while others are offering incentives or encouraging students to do their part. In fact, many of the country's big-name universities are requiring vaccinations such as Harvard University, Stanford University, New York University, University of Southern California, and many more.

Meanwhile, the Biden Administration is hoping to incentivize colleges and universities to require their students to be vaccinated and has developed the COVID-19 College Challenge, where colleges and universities can take a pledge and commit to taking action to get their students and communities vaccinated. So far, more than 200 colleges in 43 states have already taken the pledge and committed to the challenge, including Emory & Henry College in Virginia.

"We are requiring certain populations to be vaccinated to return and participate in their sport or activity as well as those who plan to live in the resident halls," says Jennifer Pearce, VP for Enrollment Management and External Affairs at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. Pearce also is a member of the college's COVID-19 Task Force.

She continues: "[Students] will have the option of a medical or religious exemption. Those who are not vaccinated will have to continue to wear masks at all times while those who are vaccinated will have a lanyard to wear that illustrates their support to stop the spread of COVID and that they 'did their part.'"

Universities that are not requiring vaccinations will likely continue testing for COVID-19 on a regular basis and offer space on campus for students who develop the illness. Even if the majority of students get fully vaccinated, most colleges and universities also will have some form of mask requirement.

Although these requirements will largely be based on the university's local health department requirements, many colleges and universities are requiring masks in some capacity, especially for unvaccinated students. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that unvaccinated individuals continue to wear masks in public. For some parents, the vaccination gives them a sense of peace about sending their kids back to school.

"Knowing that both of my boys are fully vaccinated gives me a sense of security about sending them to college two hours away," says Wendy Hux, a Pickerington, Ohio mother of two. Her two sons will be attending the University of Cincinnati (UC) in the fall. "Even though it's still possible for them to get COVID, it is less likely and I appreciate the fact that they have some level of protection while they are attending classes and living with other students."

To find out if your student's college or university will require vaccinations, as well as their mask requirements, visit the university's website. Most colleges and universities have specific pages on their websites dedicated to COVID-19 protocols. You also can find a list of colleges and universities participating in President Biden's COVID-19 College Challenge by visiting the website.

Online Learning

When parents first learned that their students would be learning online, most people hoped that using these technologies would be short-lived, but what both students and universities discovered is that there are some advantages to online learning. And, because of that, this teaching method will likely stick around in some capacity even when the pandemic ends.

Before COVID-19, there was this assumption that students learn better in a classroom filled with other people, but that is not always the case.

For instance, students who are more introverted or don't like to be the center of attention might be more likely to participate in a class discussion when it's on a video call or a discussion board, says Jefferson R. Blackburn-Smith, Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. For this reason, 15% of Otterbein's courses will still be offered online for students who prefer this mode of teaching.

"We discovered that platforms like Zoom and Teams are perfect for meaningful conversations and engagement," he says. "Plus, the instructor can determine how to group the students in breakout rooms and drop in and answer questions. It ends up being a much richer experience than in a crowded classroom."

In some cases, online classes and presentations also can be more dynamic. For instance, if a group of students is making a presentation online, one student can be fielding questions in the chatbox while the other students are presenting. In a more traditional setting, students would have had to interrupt the presentation in order to ask a question. But with the online model, presentations can be more dynamic and more fluid.

That said, Blackburn-Smith says that the pandemic also reaffirmed the importance of relational teaching. So, even though universities discovered that online learning has some value and a place in the education model, it's not going to replace face-to-face teaching.

"When students and faculty are face-to-face, they get to know one another and there is value in that public environment," Blackburn-Smith says. "Conversations and instruction happen more authentically."

Consequently, most colleges and universities will return to predominantly in-person instruction. But look for online learning to continue to be an option because it works for some students and helps include students that cannot be there in person.

Greater Attention to Value and Location

Since COVID-19 disrupted education, both parents and students are paying far more attention to the value of the education they receive and what it costs them.

Before COVID-19, students were more willing to travel or live further from home in order to get an education, but now a university's location and proximity to their home have become more of a priority for students who are making a decision about where to attend college. They have learned that being far from home can not only be more expensive but also can be a challenge when something significant happens as it did with COVID-19.

"During COVID, in particular, students chose schools where they could live at home and still attend classes," Blackburn-Smith says. "It is still unclear how quickly families will recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic and begin to broaden their search to colleges and universities further away. In the past, parents used to ask about campus safety and crime statistics, now they want to know about a university's safety protocols."

Students and parents also will be looking at a university's value in terms of cost as well as their ability to launch students into their careers.

For Hux, the ability of a university to give her boys an immersive experience where they gained real-world skills was a crucial factor in their college decision.

"We asked the universities we talked with about internships and co-ops to determine who had the best opportunities," she says. "There are some well-respected universities where students are pretty much on their own when it comes to getting career experience before graduation. As a result, we decided on UC because they take a vested interest in helping students get the most of their time there."

The same is true for Otterbein. In fact, according to Blackburn-Smith, every student will have at least one immersive experience during their time at the university.

Overall, look for colleges and universities to differentiate themselves from the competition by making sure they are offering the most value to their students. They may do this through more scholarships and aid, or they may do this through the services, real-world experiences, and the career paths they offer students.

Blackburn-Smith advises parents to look for universities that have the resources to provide for their students and take care of their infrastructure. Additionally, make sure you look into the financial strength of the university as well as its faculty base. You want to be sure your student will be getting the type of education you expect, he says.

Return of Campus Tours

Many colleges and universities are reinstating campus tours, but they still may be in a limited capacity depending on their local health department rules and regulations. But, if the college or university your student is interested in attending is offering a tour, both Hux and Blackburn-Smith recommend attending. A tour can give you a much better picture of what your student can expect from their campus experience.

"Use your eyes when you are on campus," suggests Blackburn-Smith. "If there are things that concern you when you are there, ask about them."

Hux agrees wholeheartedly. One of the disadvantages that students graduating high school in 2021 experienced was the lack of in-person tours, she says.

"It's very easy to make something look better than it actually is in a photo or video. It's also easy to make the student experience sound exciting or appealing with the correct wording," Hux explains. "But none of this information online beats an in-person visit. Because students were not able to go on tours, I look for a lot of colleges and universities to experience a number of transfers. Students may get to the college and realize it's not at all what they expected."

Hux recommends walking around campus or finding a student to give you a tour if the university still hasn't reinstated campus tours. "There is no substitute for an in-person visit when you are making a decision about where to submit college applications."

Increased Attention to Student Mental Health

According to a 2020 study, college students reported increased anxiety and depression during the onset of COVID-19 when compared to other academic years. For this reason, many colleges and universities are making their students' mental health a priority.

"We are increasing our mental health services and our student success initiatives [at Emory & Henry]," says Pearce. "Many of our new students have been online for two years and we intend to successfully support their re-entry back into the classroom and face-to-face instruction. We also will have more activities and events to keep students engaged and in fellowship."

If your student has some concerns about going away to school, living on campus, or attending on-campus classes, be sure you have a discussion or two before they leave, says Hux.

You also should make sure you connect them with a mental health professional in the area or an online counselor if they are struggling with an issue like depression or anxiety. And, be sure to keep the lines of communication open.

It's not uncommon for college students to struggle with making friends, as well as homesickness and loneliness. But going away to school during a pandemic can exacerbate those issues or even cause their grades to slip. Make sure you're staying connected and that you're talking on a regular basis.

Continuation of Test-Optional Programs

Some colleges and universities plan to make the ACT and SAT optional for admission again in 2021. Hux, who had a son apply to college before the pandemic and one who applied to college during the pandemic, indicates that you really need to consider your student's strengths and weaknesses before deciding whether or not to take advantage of test-optional policies.

For instance, if your student has a high GPA, is ranked high in their class, and has some impressive extracurriculars, but is a poor test taker, it may be in their best interest to take advantage of a university's test-optional policy. On the other hand, if a good ACT or SAT score could boost your child's application or help them qualify for scholarships or aid, by all means, include it, she says.

If your student is planning to take the ACT or the SAT, Hux recommends that parents of high school juniors and seniors invest in tutoring.

"Missing almost an entire year of in-person instruction will really have an impact on a student's ability to do well on these standardized tests, especially for students who struggle with online learning," she says. "Many students missed crucial instruction time that was needed in order to be successful on these tests, especially in math and science."

A Word From Verywell

As the country's colleges and universities return to some semblance of in-person education and normal activities, not everything on campuses will be as they once were. For current students, this might mean in-person classes will be held but with vaccine and mask requirements. Meanwhile, prospective students might expect to see test-optional admission policies and fewer options for campus tours.

Visit the college or university's website for more information and ask lots of questions when making your college decisions. By doing your research, you can be better prepared for what to expect from higher education as the country continues to transition out of the pandemic.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Percent of delivered first vaccine doses administered by U.S. States and territories.

  2. The White House. Fact sheet: President Biden to announce National Month of Action to mobilize an all-of-America sprint to get more people vaccinated by July 4th.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When you've been fully vaccinated.

  4. Huckins JF, Dasilva AW, Wang W, et al. Mental health and behavior of college students during the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic: Longitudinal smartphone and ecological momentary assessment studyJ Med Internet Res. 2020;22(6):e20185. doi:10.2196/20185

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.