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Climate advisory - Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success

 March 20, 2020

by Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.
Vice President, Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success
Director and Professor, Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation


The (#CA-2020-01) has been updated with new information on student sentiment related to the coronavirus (COVID-19). This current advisory (#CA-2020-001.2) presents data collected since March 5, 2020, and reports on changes in student affect based on their information exposure and experiences.

About the March 17, 2020 survey administration. Climatext was administered on March 17, 2020 to a representative sample of 580 VCU students. VCU students responded to the prompt "Now that some time has passed, we wanted to ask you again. Based on what you’re hearing, reading and seeing about the coronavirus (COVID-19), how is this affecting you as a VCU student?" There was a 37.4% response rate within 24-hours. Both actual and adjusted (re-coded) scores are presented in Table 1. Below, we provide a summary of the findings.

  • Overall. VCU students’ sentiment about the impact of the coronavirus worsened between March 3, 2020 and March 17, 2020. Based on adjusted scores, students’ average sentiment score declined from -0.116 to -0.197, which is approximately a -70 ppt deterioration since March 3, 2020. This result was expected, as the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020 declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. The WHO designation triggered national and statewide emergencies that led to unprecedented changes in students’ lifestyle, schooling and work. National and local mis/communication as well as the deluge of complex and contradictory information students received in televised, online and social media also heightened their concerns and fears.
  • Age. Negative sentiment resulting from the coronavirus pandemic became more evident across all age groups during the past two weeks. In particular, older students’ (ages 34 and older) sentiment changed from relatively neutral or unfazed (0.035) on March 3, 2020 to concerned (-0.127) on March 20, 2020. Students ages 18 to 34 concerns remained elevated during this same time period, from -0.116 to -0.197. Older student populations (34 and older) began to feel the impact of COVID-19, once national and statewide emergencies resulted in K-12 school closures, disruptions to daily and family routines and work schedules; and, for example, inter/national news reports about despair, possible economic recession, and generalized uncertainty about the state of world affairs.
  • Gender. Female students continued to report negative sentiment above and beyond male students (-0.212 vs. -0.143), although male students’ negative sentiment increased almost four-fold during this period, from -0.038 to -0.143. This finding is corroborated by research on social relational networks and responsibilities.
  • Race / Ethnicity. Asian students’ negative sentiment deteriorated by 96.5 ppt, from -0.115 to -0.226. Asian student sentiment was comparable to underrepresented minority students’ sentiment (-0.145 to -0.259), and much more negative than sentiment expressed by white students (-0.040 to -0.143). Despite the release of governmental and non-governmental publications on best practices and recommendations for dealing with the coronavirus (which include information on discrimination, racism and xenophobia), Asian students still reported experiencing a disproportionate impact from the pandemic. This impact appears to not only be cultural, but also economic, in terms of the interactional effect of discrimination and social distancing, for example. An Asian female student shares "I’m a little worried about the effect it’s having on my other Asian American friends. My parents own a restaurant, and business has been decreasing these past weeks due to fear of the coronavirus."
  • Residence. The negative sentiment expressed by on-campus students on March 3, 2020 continued to worsen over the course of the past two weeks, from -0.139 to -0.212; and remained slightly more negative than those who live off-campus, from -0.073 to -0.180. A junior residing in Gladding Residence Center stated "I’m incredibly concerned about money and housing right now, and I feel like VCU has not done enough to address these issues, nor have they been putting students first in all of this…" The negative sentiment about money and housing also was shared by off-campus residents, for example, a sophomore who reported "It has really inconvenienced me, I work on campus and therefore have no income. I have no access to the resources on campus, I have to struggle to find housing next year. I do not learn well in an online environment. I feel very frustrated." Another off-campus resident texted "it has affected me in the most severe way possible. My restaurant closed indefinitely putting me at a loss for food resources and have no idea how to make rent."
  • Class status. VCU freshmen students’ concerns became more significant the past two weeks, from -0.187 to -0.264, and remained more negative than sophomores (-0.087 to -0.233), juniors (-0.068 to -0.194) and seniors (-0.152 to -0.166). A female freshman student stated that "Classes are being moved online and its disrupting my peace, college just got ten times harder." Other freshmen reported, "I’m extremely stressed. My dorm is closed, classes are changing, and my friends are gone"; "It is extremely stressful and scary. I am most concerned about how online classes will affect my grades this semester"; and "Having to do all of classwork online sounds a little nerve racking and I don’t particularly like the idea, but I guess that’s just how it is. I hope we get refunds for housing and meal plans though." Anxiety about online courses seemed to be the most salient theme among freshmen students, a theme also shared by upperclassmen. For example, a female sophomore reports, "I feel frustrated and skeptical as we go online, I have struggled in the past learning in online classes. It has affected my anxiety and has me worried as how my family and I will be able to work to pay off my tuition and bills."
  • Income level. Negative sentiment among Pell-grant eligible students was sustained during this period, -0.165 to -0.185, but was equaled by their coevals, -0.064 to -0.195. It is surmised that the economic impact of the pandemic during the past two weeks, while most devastating for limited wealth students and their families, began to also impact students with access to greater means. A sophomore, Pell-grant eligible student texted "I don’t have access to wifi at home, so I fear it’s going to heavily affect my grades." Others shared "Its quite depressing because I can’t be at school yet I am still getting charged. I know it’s a serious issue so its a doubled edged sword"; and "Just concerned about finances through VCU. Refunds? Hopefully." The sentiment about finance also was shared among non Pell-grant eligible students, "I think it sucks that I can’t live in the dorm I’m spending THOUSANDS of money on and then I’m worried about being able to do classes like my orgo lab on campus. It’s a stressful time for sure."
  • Legacy status. First generation students’ negative sentiment worsened, from -0.129 to -0.234, as did negative sentiment among their coevals, -0.083 to -0.177. First generation students’ expressed concern about their first-year experience and what this means for their future. For example, an 18 year-old student, who is first generation and Pell-grant eligible, texted "It’s taking away from my first year experience." Another confided, "I feel really trapped. I love this school. As an art student I am utterly confused as to how I’m going to learn. I understand why they did this but I feel it could have been done better." A first-generation female and sophomore texted, "made a poor investment into my future."

Table 1. VCU Student Sentiment Scores (Actual and Adjusted) for March 3, 2020 and March 17, 2020

  Actual scores Adjusted scores
  3/3/2020 3/17/2020 3/3/2020 3/17/2020
Population (N=270)  (N=217)  (N=270) (N=217) 
Overall -0.062  -0.160  -0.091  -0.192 
Age group     
18 – 34 years old  -0.131  -0.165  -0.116  -0.197 
34 and older  0.118  -0.127  0.035  -0.127 
Female -0.072  -0.189  -0.112  -0.212 
Male  -0.021  -0.094  -0.038  -0.143 
Asian  -0.010  -0.217  -0.115  -0.226 
Underrepresented minority  -0.138  -0.229  -0.145  -0.259 
White  -0.028  -0.106 -0.040  -0.143 
On-campus  -0.081  -0.183  -0.139  -0.212 
Off-campus  -0.065  -0.151  -0.073  -0.180 
Class status     
Freshmen  -0.058  -0.238  -0.187  -0.264 
Sophomores  -0.051  -0.219  -0.087  -0.233 
Juniors  -0.077  -0.116  -0.068  -0.194 
Seniors  -0.085  -0.129  -0.152  -0.166 
Graduate students  -0.003  -0.138  -0.033  -0.138 
Professional students  -0.210  -0.111  -0.085  -0.145 
Income level     
Pell-grant eligible  -0.153  -0.152  -0.165 -0.185 
Pell-grant eligible (no)  -0.025  -0.167  -0.064  -0.195 
Legacy status     
First generation  -0.096  -0.212  -0.129  -0.234 
First generation (no)  -0.051  -0.144  -0.083  -0.177 

1 - Bold-type denotes adjusted scores that exceeded the overall population mean score on March 3, 2020 or March 17, 2020.
2 - Underline identifies adjusted scores that changed at least 50% from March 3, 2020 to March 17, 2020.

About Climatext. VCU’s Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) administers Climatext as part of the university’s proactive monitoring and response plan to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Climatext assesses student sentiment resulting from their information exposure and experiences related to COVID-19. Sentiment scores range from negative-to neutral (-1.00 to 0.00) and from neutral-to-positive (0.00 to +1.00). Climatext produces a real-time data summary for the general student population as well as student subpopulations. Data are collected and coded using proprietary software conceptualized and developed by Sam Yerkes, Jim Yucha, and Aashir Nasim. Results are used to inform the university’s strategic communications efforts and support services that address student needs.