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Students walk the University of Washington flagship campus in March, on the last day of classes before the novel coronavirus cut the spring 2020 term short. A new study found pronounced effects of the disruption on students.

As colleges plan to welcome students back — whether virtually or in person — this fall, a new study sheds light on the damaging effect the Covid-19 pandemic has already wrought on students’ educations.

The study, by researchers at Arizona State University, found that undergraduate students at their university have suffered noticeably — and unequally — as a result of the pandemic. Among the findings: Low-income students at the university were 55 percent more likely to delay graduation than their more affluent peers, and 41 percent more likely to change their major.

Jacob French, an economics instructor at Arizona State and one of the researchers behind the study, said the findings are consistent with national research: Low-income people are more likely to be impacted by the virus.

French said the differing tolls exacted on students depending on their socioeconomic status are “statistically explained by health and financial shocks.”

In addition to delayed graduation rates, researchers also found Covid-19 nearly doubled the divides between lower- and higher-income students’ expected GPAs, with the gap increasing from 0.052 to 0.098 on a four-point scale.

But the lowering of expectations wasn’t limited to low-income students. Over all, students’ perceived probability of finding a job post-graduation declined by almost 20 percent, and their expected earnings when 35 years old — around 15 years after the outbreak — declined by approximately 2.5 percent.

The study also found a wide gap in how much time students normally spent studying compared to how much time they spent after the outbreak, with students studying about an hour less per week than normal, regardless of socioeconomic status.

“I think it’s important, from a policy perspective, to try to think about how to respond,” French said. “I don’t want to speculate too much about why we see that specifically, but I think our hypothesis has been along the lines of some students are more motivated than others, maybe.”

The researchers ascertained 1,500 students’ expected GPAs and graduation dates, among other things, by asking them questions both about when they expected to graduate, for example, but also when they would have expected to graduate had the pandemic not struck.

The paper also found most students prefer in-person courses, and the abrupt switch to online courses after the outbreak took a large toll on students’ academic experiences — particularly in low-income students or students facing increased health risks.

“The transition to online learning may have affected their academic performance, educational plans, current labor market participation, and expectations about future employment,” the paper states.

As for what to make of the divides and how higher-education policy makers can adjust, French suggested easing the financial burden on students, in ways such as allowing deferred tuition payments, having policies in place to help students who’ve lost jobs due to the pandemic and recession, and offering more flexible ways to attend classes to mitigate the perceived health risks of Covid-19.

“Clearly, the evidence we found is that if you address those first-order things, you can decrease the achievement gaps,” he said.

Alison Berg is an editorial intern at The Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter @alison__berg, or email her at alison.berg@chronicle.com.





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