Pandemic did not weaken student trust in higher education overall

A group of students in graduation gowns holding up their mortar boards against a blue sky

RICHLAND, Wash. – Despite major COVID-19 disruptions, a survey study involving more than 8,300 students at 29 colleges and universities revealed that most maintained their trust in their institutions, at least in the early pandemic months. 

In the study, published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, the researchers found steady trust among many student demographics including white and Hispanic students even as the pandemic started moving many campuses online. There were notable exceptions, however, with trust falling among Black students and students whose parents had not attended college.

“There is a tension between ensuring campus safety on the one hand and being mindful of the vulnerabilities that students may have on the other,” said lead author Shannon Calderone, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Washington State University Tri-Cities campus. “We can learn from these experiences, but on the whole, many institutions were responsive in terms of making decisions and acting on them.”

The survey answers did not reveal the reasons why some students lost trust, but the researchers noted that the decreases tended to occur among groups who already had some distrust in higher education. For students from lower-income households, the pandemic also meant they were likely sent back to homes without key resources such as high-speed internet that more advantaged students had.

“A couple of reasons might explain these differences and one is the students’ historical relationships with their institutions,” said Calderone. “Also, the more vulnerable students tend to be, the more that may have also shifted trust — especially when substantial changes were taking place in a very short period of time, that vulnerability could be exacerbated.”

For this study, Calderone and co-author Kevin Fosnacht from Indiana University, Bloomington, analyzed student answers to a special set of trust questions added to the National Survey of Student Engagement. The survey period spanned from February 2020 to May 2020 just as pandemic measures started impacting campuses nationwide.

Among the positive results, students with disabilities showed an increase in trust at the start of the pandemic.

“This suggests that institutions were pretty responsive in creating environments through this transition that would allow students with disabilities to be successful,” Calderone said.

While the overall results showed steady or increasing trust among students, the researchers emphasized a need for college and university leaders to communicate well with students of all backgrounds to better understand and address their needs.

“Unfortunately, we’re bound to have something like this happen again, so one big lesson from this is to really be thinking about how we bring other voices into the dialogue around decision making,” Calderone said.

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