Three losses defining the students of the pandemic

Experience, quality, and trust have been lost. Dr Gary Guadagnolo, Director of EAB Research, explores these three losses that defined the student experience during the pandemic.

There’s no doubt about it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred fundamental shifts in the student experience.

While initially borne out of necessity, many of these shifts have staying power, reflecting more enduring changes on how students approach and interact with higher education institutions.

But the question remains: how best to understand, and possibly even predict, these new student behaviours and expectations?

In our research, EAB has turned to insights from consumer behaviour trends and generational analyses to identify key pandemic-era experiences that will likely influence student behaviour for years to come.

Four takeaways are below, along with an invitation to participate in an upcoming event where we’ll bring together sector leaders to explore these ideas further.

The three losses

Three losses define the student experience during the pandemic: loss of experience, loss of quality, and loss of trust.

Together, these losses stem from the fact that most, if not all, students currently enrolled in universities were deprived of the typical or expected higher education experience.

Those in the pipeline for university enrolment likely felt similar losses in their secondary schools.

The result?

Students have started to demonstrate new behavioural trends that reflect a scarcity mindset. Sector leaders will have to grapple with, and respond to, these losses in order to recruit and serve tomorrow’s students.

Return on experience

Students are focusing less on higher education’s return on investment and more on its return on experience.

Acute experiences of financial and experience scarcity across the pandemic, and in an uncertain economy, are leading students to favour short-term experiences over long-term investment gains when determining value.

Students are constructing experiences that meet their immediate needs and wants, leaning into the mantra of ‘the customer is always right.’

As such, students are treating more aspects of their experience as negotiable. If those expectations are not met, they are taking their dissatisfaction directly to senior leaders.

We call this ‘I’d like to speak to the manager’ syndrome. It requires universities to engage students more proactively in decision-making, and pull back the curtain on costs, resourcing, and trade-offs.

Quality online experiences post-pandemic

Students want and expect quality online experiences post-pandemic, even though virtual instruction over the past year has missed the mark.

Students of the pandemic are digital connoisseurs. They have high expectations for quality digital experiences in every aspect of their life, and the university experience is no exception.

But students have been underwhelmed by the remote instruction of the past year.

Notably, EAB analysed over 130 student newspapers from universities around the world. This showed that students were twice as likely to reference poor quality of online instruction as a negative, rather than the online medium itself.

Students still want high quality virtual experiences, even once they return to campus. They just expect them to be better than the past year. Deciding which online services merit continued investment and development is one the biggest questions for post-pandemic operations.

Disengagement and activism

Students are increasingly disillusioned with their institutions and their leaders, resulting in twin responses of disengagement and activism.

Students increasingly believe that HEIs have broken their social contract by prioritising ‘profits over people.’ This ranges from perceptions of physical distancing mismanagement to frustrations over fee rebates. As a result, many students are disengaging with their institutions.

For others, this disillusionment has led to institutionally-targeted activism, both on and off campus. An increase in racial justice activism over the past year has only accelerated this trend.

Helping students identify, and productively engage, with aspects of their university experience that provide personal meaning – as well as ensuring robust and holistic wellbeing support – can help increase trust on campus.

EAB researchers spend a lot of time thinking about the student experience. To read some of their latest thoughts on the topic, and review upcoming events, please visit the Serving the Students of the Pandemic resource page.