A new study released this morning from Gallup and Lumina Foundation provides a robust set of grades from associate and bachelor degree students about the quality of their education during Covid-19. These grades both shatter prevailing wisdom and author an intriguing new narrative that will be instructive to students, parents, faculty and administrators alike. If you think colleges improved their online learning from the spring to fall or that for-profit universities receive the lowest quality grades, well – you’re in for a surprise. And being online in and of itself isn’t the problem; it’s whether students had to switch to the modality that matters in terms of satisfaction.

For anyone with substantial experience in online education (either as a student or a faculty member) prior to the pandemic, they know that online teaching and learning can offer a range of quality experiences from downright crappy to incredible. Those who have been doing it for a while, with professional support and the right technology, know it can be just as good as (if not better than) in-person. But for those who are newcomers to online education – as a result of being forced into it by the pandemic – it most certainly hasn’t been the kind of experience they expected and their grades on quality reflect this. The report, based on responses from 2,064 associate degree students and 3,941 bachelor degree students, shows us that the “switchers” aren’t very happy. Students who remained consistent in learning modalities (online or in-person) are much more satisfied with their experience.

Overall, students who are engaged in entirely in-person education this year give the highest quality ratings with 85% saying their education is “excellent” or “very good.” Those who are ‘mostly in person’ or ‘equal time in-person/online’ are lower with 76% providing “excellent” or “very good” ratings while those who are ‘mostly online’ or ‘entirely online’ sit at 73% respectively. Where it gets interesting, though, is when the data is parsed by whether students were forced to switch from in-person to online education. Those who had no change in modality are most satisfied with 56% providing “excellent” ratings of the quality of their education. For those who received more instruction online than before the pandemic, only 37% gave “excellent” ratings. And for those who switched from fully in-person to fully online, only 28% gave an “excellent” rating – about half as many as those who remained in the same modality.
There are also meaningful differences by first-time vs. returning students and by age of student. First-time students were more likely to rate their quality of education higher with 40% saying “excellent” vs. only 32% of returning students saying the same. For those ages 25+, 78% provided “excellent” or “very good” ratings while 73% of those ages 18-24 provided the same. This finding is most likely linked to the fact that many non-traditional aged adult learners were enrolled in fully online programs before the pandemic and experienced no change in learning modality.

Overall student ratings of educational quality by institutional type will likely be the most surprising to readers. For-profit universities garner the highest overall quality ratings with 79% of students providing “excellent” or “very good” ratings, followed by 78% of students from private, non-profits and 73% of students from public, non-profits. Previous studies have shown that for-profit students typically provide the lowest overall ratings but during the pandemic this has been completely reversed.

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