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VSAC survey shows how COVID-19 has impacted students’ college plans

Study comes at critical time as Vermonters look to new school year

WINOOSKI (Aug. 10, 2020) –Vermont Student Assistance Corp. released survey results today that capture the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected college enrollment plans among Vermont students.

While most rising and current college students still plan to enroll this fall, the survey suggests that the pandemic’s financial toll on families, through job losses and the like, is creating significant angst about students’ ability to pay for higher education. Both these financial stressors, as well as academic challenges introduced by moves to online learning, also seem to be impacting underserved groups – such as first-generation students and students of color – more so than their counterparts.

“This study confirms that COVID-19 is having an impact on students’ college enrollment plans, mostly because of its effects on families’ financial security,” said Scott Giles, CEO of VSAC.

“And results further suggest that the pandemic may end up widening already-existing gaps in educational attainment especially affecting those who are traditionally underserved,” he said. “The impact of COVID-19 is something we will continue to follow through future surveys. By generating reliable data in a timely manner, hopefully we can arm policymakers and educational leaders with the information they need to blunt some of these impacts.” 

The vast majority of students surveyed – 90% of first-year students and 85% of returning students – reported that they still planned to enroll in college in the fall of 2020. However, when asked if their plans would change if they had to take most of their classes online, more students (19%) reported that they would delay or cancel enrollment, with 13% of respondents undecided. Students of color were nearly twice as likely as white students to report wanting academic support to successfully complete online classes.

Students’ financial concerns were a particular focus of this survey. State economists have predicted that as many as 100,000 Vermonters -- one out of every three workers in the state -- could end up applying for unemployment benefits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Vermont families have generally expressed anxiety over college costs and not surprisingly, the VSAC survey revealed continued significant anxiety surrounding students’ ability to pay for college.

Fully 86% of the survey respondents reported that financial aid was highly or critically important to their ability to pursue higher education, with first-generation college students, females, and first-year students being significantly more likely to make this statement, as well as to report a lack of confidence in being able to pay for their education. Notably, first-generation students, or those whose parents have not earned a four-year degree, reported a family income of less than half that of those whose parents had gone to college.

The study also suggests that these groups – who have been traditionally disadvantaged when it comes to higher education and female students – are also being more heavily impacted by the pandemic; both groups of students were more likely to report a temporary stoppage in work related to COVID-19.

Not surprisingly, students who reported being personally affected by COVID-19 in multiple ways – through loss of a job, loss of a scholarship, loss of value in their investments, and/or a COVID-19 diagnosis – were significantly less likely to report planning to enroll in the fall (67%), compared with students reporting just one or two COVID-related stressors (87%) or no stressors (90%).

The survey, completed between June 17 and July 2, reported a margin of error of 3.5%. The 675 respondents came from a randomly selected pool of students who had completed the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA) form to receive financial assistance for the 2020-2021 academic year.

The research brief can be found here.


About VSAC – Changing Lives through Education and Training since 1965

Vermont Student Assistance Corporation is a public, nonprofit agency established by the Vermont Legislature in 1965 to help Vermonters achieve their education and training goals after high school. VSAC serves students and their families in grades 7-12, as well as adults returning to school, by providing education and career planning services, need-based grants, scholarships and education loans. VSAC has awarded more than $600 million in grants and scholarships for Vermont students, and also administers Vermont’s 529 college savings plan. Share your VSAC story by email to or submit a video to YouTube. Find us at or check in on Facebook and Twitter. #changing lives