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8,000+ community college students share their COVID-19 stories

COVID-19 has impacted all of us in some way over the past two and a half months. Community college students, like K-12 and four-year college students, have seen campuses shut down and classes move online. Like so many others across the state and country, community college students have dealt with the challenges of online education, including a lack of reliable, high-speed internet and a device on which to do their classwork.

And while many families of K-12 students and four-year college students have suffered economically as a result of the pandemic, community college students are especially vulnerable. Community colleges enroll a higher share of low-income students and students of color — both groups that are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.

To better understand how COVID-19 is impacting community college students, conducted a Reach NC Voices survey of North Carolina community college students. The online survey ran from May 4 to May 28, 2020. During that time, 10,434 individuals responded to the survey. Of those participants, 1,678 did not answer any questions beyond the initial demographic information, leaving the survey with 8,756 good respondents (partial responses included). These results include only unverified, self-reported data.

A note on sample size: According to the latest statistical report from the North Carolina Community College System, there were 681,187 students enrolled (unduplicated headcount) in either curriculum or continuing education at a North Carolina community college in the 2017-18 school year. With a student population of 681,187, a sample size of 384 people is valid at a 95% confidence level with a 5% margin of error. Even with some drop off throughout the survey, each question has a sample size substantially larger than 384.

Who participated in the survey?

EdNC emailed the survey link to every community college president with the request to share the survey with students. Five colleges did not have any students participate in the survey: Brunswick Community College, Haywood Community College, Martin Community College, Stanly Community College, and Tri-County Community College. Another nine had fewer than five students participate. In total, 44 of the 58 colleges had more than five students participate in the survey (identified in yellow on the map below).

Graphic by Carol Bono/EducationNC

Survey participants largely reflected community college student demographics. The majority of respondents stated they were taking curriculum courses (85%) while 11% stated they were taking continuing education or workforce development courses and 6% basic skills or GED courses. Another 8% responded “Other” or “I don’t know.”

Three-quarters of participants were 35 or younger (78%) with almost half between the ages of 18 and 25.

The racial breakdown of survey participants closely mirrored the racial breakdown of curriculum students. According to the North Carolina Community College System’s 2019 Equity Report, the fall 2017 curriculum student population was 57% White, 21% Black, 11% Hispanic, 3% Multiple, 3% Asian, and 1% American Indian.

Of the 8,696 respondents who identified their race or ethnicity, 54% identified as white, 24% black or African-American, 11% Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish, 3% other, 3% Asian, 1% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.3% Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. Three percent preferred not to answer.


After hearing reports of students dropping classes and withdrawing due to COVID-19, we wanted to know how the pandemic impacted students’ enrollment decisions. Four out of every five participants stated that they were still enrolled in all of their classes while 9% dropped one or more classes and 2% withdrew.

When you look at these responses by race/ethnicity, black students are significantly over-represented in the student population who said they withdrew. Remember that 24% of total survey respondents identified as black or African-American and 54% as white. Of the 174 students who stated they withdrew due to COVID-19, 45% identified as black or African-American compared to just 29% as white.

While the majority of classes shifted online, some classes that require face-to-face instruction like welding were forced to pause until they could safely resume in-person instruction the week of May 11. The vast majority of respondents stated all their classes had moved online and would finish as scheduled. Just 9% stated one or more of their classes had been paused.

Those who responded “other” included students whose classes were already fully online and those whose clinical hours in hospitals were postponed.

Participants were also asked if COVID-19 has changed their plans for summer or fall enrollment. Just over 50% said their plans had not changed, 17% said they were planning on taking different courses, 10% said they are not planning on enrolling now, and 7% said they were not going to enroll but now they are.

Several comments reflected the various reasons students are changing their plans:

“I was planning on taking classes in the summer but feel as though I should not due to the increased stress of daily life.”

“Planned on taking additional courses but my educational savings has been used on living expenses due to losing my job.”

“I want to have the opportunity to sit in the classroom again because I struggle with certain classes online so I’m putting off classes for the summer so hopefully things will be back to normal by fall.”

COVID-19 hasn’t changed any plans for me. It’s because of COVID-19 that I want to go back and finish up school to become a nurse. I want to be able to help when situations like this arise in the future.”

Online learning

One of the biggest challenges for students and institutions in the switch to online learning has been access to reliable, high-speed internet and a device on which to complete their classwork. Many colleges distributed Wi-Fi hot spots and laptops to students as well as extended Wi-Fi into parking lots.

When asked how they access internet, 89% of participants said they had Wi-Fi at home, 6% use their cell phone, 2% have a Wi-Fi hot spot, 1% go to their college campuses to access Wi-Fi, and 1% said they cannot access the internet to do their coursework. It’s important to note that this survey was conducted online, so it could underestimate how many students cannot access the internet.

Breaking this down by race/ethnicity, black students are over-represented in those who use their cell phones, have a Wi-Fi hot spot, go to their college campuses for Wi-Fi, and do not have access to internet. Black students made up almost half of those who said they cannot access the internet even though they made up only a quarter of participants.

The majority of students have a laptop, including Chromebooks, on which to do their coursework. Almost half stated they have a smartphone, and 23% have a desktop computer. Two percent said they do not have a computer or other device.

The following question was sourced from a Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC) student needs survey and asks if students have had any issues with online coursework over the past 30 days. Half of participants said finding a quiet place/time for schoolwork has been an issue, and about a quarter have had challenges with scheduling, communicating with college instructors/staff, using the online learning system, and accessing other hardware. One in five students had an issue accessing the internet over the past 30 days.

These comments illustrate the challenges students are facing with online learning:

“Right now I’m paying for internet ⁠— but I can’t afford it. At times I’ve used my mobile phone or parked in parking lots for hours with a borrowed laptop to do coursework.”

“I do not have Wi-Fi at home. I’m a correctional officer. I try to do my homework at work if I can. If not, when I get off at 8 p.m., sometimes I’ll sit in the school parking lot to use the Wi-Fi.”

“We had to pay more for faster internet and a new modem so that my wife could work from home, I could do my classes online, and my children both take virtual classes, so we had to get an internet upgrade and new devices.”

“I travel to my parents’ home whenever possible to complete work because I can’t afford to pay my internet bill without work.”

COVID-19 related challenges

The following question was also sourced from the TACC student needs survey and asks how easy or difficult it would be for students to pay for an unexpected expense. Just 14% of participants said it would be very easy or pretty easy whereas 63% said it would be pretty difficult or very difficult.

Looking at the responses by race/ethnicity, white students are over-represented in those who said it would be very easy or pretty easy to acquire $500 within 30 days whereas black and Hispanic students are under-represented.

The survey also asked students if they had experienced any challenges due to COVID-19, including loss of a job or income, loss of child care, inability to pay bills and rent/mortgage, loss of housing, and whether they or a family member had tested positive for COVID-19. Three-quarters of participants have lost a job, income, or had hours cut, and just over a quarter has not been able to pay bills (not including rent or mortgage). Just 1% said they have tested positive for COVID-19, but 17% said a family member has.

Again, these results are not evenly distributed by race/ethnicity, with the exception of losing a job, income, or having hours cut. Black students are over-represented in those who have not been able to pay their bills and rent/mortgage, those who have lost housing and child care, and those who have a family member who has tested positive for COVID-19. Although just 1% of participants said they tested positive for COVID-19, Hispanic students made up 28% of those respondents. Hispanic students are also over-represented in those who have a family member with COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 impacted students?

One of the final questions on the survey was an open-ended question asking students to share how COVID-19 has impacted them personally. Many students spoke to the challenges reflected above — issues with online learning and losing jobs. Many also spoke to the negative impact of COVID-19 on their mental health. Several participants said they have experienced increased stress, anxiety, and depression, including suicidal thoughts.

These stories highlight the reality behind the data — that community college students, as so many others, are facing immense challenges. Here is a small sample of the over 5,000 comments we received. Thank you to all the students who participated in the survey and shared their voices.

“This entire pandemic has been one big mess. I have been unemployed since March 12th, 2020. I am a single mother with two small children, 6 and 2, and have had a difficult time with trying to make ends meet during this COVID-19 outbreak. Between worrying how I will sustain in this tragedy to trying to home school my eldest child and potty train my youngest, it’s been pretty stressful having to worry about how I will continue to make ends meet until this is over.”

“I don’t even know how to write everything here. As a mortuary student I’ve been called away from my family to volunteer — but still don’t know how I’ll pay for my last semester or testing or licensure. I could spend this whole crisis helping as a front line worker, and not be able to have a career in what I’m helping with due to the helping. I’ve lost what income I had. My children are home from school, and we have no child care. My husband is essential and we’re struggling between him working for the postal service and me volunteering. Not to mention all the stress.”

“Over this time period I have found myself more unmotivated and feeling like I will never be able to complete school now.”

“I lost my job and my internship position along with school being closed. I am now unable to have an actual graduation for my high school or community college. My father has been unable to work and my mother is trying to carry the weight of all the bills. However, I have been lucky in the fact that my family has not contracted COVID-19 that we know of.”

“I had to adjust to completing classes online. I had anxiety and feeling as though I wasn’t up to completing the classes when faced with material that I wasn’t comfortable with. I also saw how some of my classmates were affected, which in return affected me. I studied late into the night hours.”

“I am a healthcare worker, a full-time nursing student, and I am on medications that compromise my immune system. It has cost me more doing school work from home having to print and teach yourself the lessons. I have also had a family member who has had COVID and did not survive. I do my best to keep myself healthy as well as staying away from my family so that I can continue to do my job and help others.”

“Family members have passed away and I am devastated.”

“I am a dependent under my parents. I was a part-time college student and full-time employee at a restaurant during the Spring 2020 semester. I lost my job and my dad got furloughed from his job as well so my mom, who is a teacher, is our only source of income. I am planning on transferring to NC State University, but given the circumstances, affording it will be extra difficult.”

“Trying to care for a family member that is sick during this time has been extremely difficult. As well, I have 3 kids in 3 different grades, that I now homeschool due to COVID-19. This was a sudden shock due to me being in college full time. Instantly, all four of us were using the same internet and sharing computers. Total nightmare.”

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and Chief Operating Officer for EducationNC.