Final COVID-19 Pulse Point Survey of Higher Ed Leaders Shows How Institutions Are Adapting
May 21, 2021

Mental health, enrollment declines, racial equity issues top list of most pressing concerns

Mental health of students remains the top concern for college and university leaders as they wrap up the spring 2021 term, according to the latest ACE Pulse Point survey, with a majority of respondents saying they are continuing or implementing new practices that include telehealth mental health services to address the issue.

In this second survey of the spring 2021 term, developed in partnership with the TIAA Institute, 244 presidents identified their most pressing concerns and described changes in admissions processes and application numbers for fall 2021; adaptations to institutional operations; and institutional practices to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Over the past year, ACE’s Pulse Point surveys gathered the insights of college and university leaders through a brief set of questions designed to get their take on the decisions, issues, and challenges they face. This is the eighth and last survey in this series looking at how higher education leaders are managing in response to the pandemic. See the full series here.

Of the 244 presidents, 98 lead private four-year institutions (40 percent), 69 lead public four-year institutions (28 percent), 53 lead public two-year institutions (22 percent), nine lead for-profit institutions (4 percent), eight lead private graduate-only institutions (3 percent), six lead private two-year institutions (2 percent), and one leads a less than two-year institution (0.4 percent). The survey was launched on April 19 and closed on April 30.

Across all sectors, “mental health of students” was the most commonly selected pressing issue (73 percent). Over half of all presidents reported “enrollment numbers for the summer and/or fall” (53 percent) as a pressing issue, and nearly half of all presidents selected “mental health of faculty and staff” (48 percent).

“Racial equity issues” was among the top five most pressing concerns among college and university presidents, with 40 percent of leaders selecting this as a pressing issue, up from 37 percent in the February survey. The fifth most commonly selected pressing issue was “long-term financial viability of the institution,” with 32 percent of presidents selecting this issue, down from 41 percent in the February survey.

New Practices and Broader Efforts to Address Mental Health

In this survey, ACE sought to better understand how institutional leaders were addressing mental health and well-being on their own campuses. Presidents were given a list of 10 practices and efforts that support mental health and were asked to select those that were new on their campus, relative to those in place prior to the pandemic. Telehealth mental health services was the most commonly selected new practice that presidents said they were continuing or adopting (72 percent), followed by partnerships with external mental health providers (48 percent), investing more resources in counseling centers (45 percent), and hiring more counselors (43 percent).

More than half of all presidents (52 percent) said their budget to support the mental health of students, faculty, and staff had increased for fall 2021. Also, 71 percent of presidents said they had revised their work-from-home policies for faculty, 56 percent said they had expanded counseling services for faculty, and 33 percent adjusted tenure and promotion decision-making policies.

Changes in Undergraduate Applications for Fall 2021

Overall, 47 percent of presidents reported a decrease in undergraduate applications for fall 2021 relative to fall 2019. A little more than one-third of all presidents (37 percent) reported an increase in undergraduate applications and 16 percent reported applications stayed about the same. It should be noted that nearly two-thirds of presidents at public two-year institutions (65 percent) noted a decrease in undergraduate applications for fall 2021, compared with fall 2019. This was much higher than the share of presidents at public four-year (49 percent) and private four-year (35 percent) institutions who reported a decrease.

Presidents were most likely to report a noticeable decline in applications among international students (34 percent), low-income students (31 percent), and Black or African American students (28 percent).

Presidents at public four-year and public two-year institutions were particularly inclined to note the hardships experienced by prospective applicants, including health and safety concerns, childcare challenges, and uncertainty over the future. Similarly, several respondents noted that the pandemic posed serious financial challenges for students.

Fall Vaccine Requirements

With expanded eligibility and supply of the COVID-19 vaccine across the country, some institutions have indicated they will require students, faculty, and staff coming to campus in the fall to be vaccinated prior to the start of the term. At the time of the survey, which was conducted over the last two weeks in April 2021, 12 percent of respondents said they will require students to be vaccinated before they return to campus, and 7 percent said they would require faculty and staff to get the vaccine. Around 22 percent said they were still considering requiring the vaccine for students, faculty, and staff and about a quarter of respondents said they had not yet decided.

Institutional Practices to Promote Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

A greater percentage of presidents indicated implementation of anti-racist initiatives in the current academic year than what is planned for the upcoming 2021-22 academic year. The most commonly selected anti-racist initiatives that presidents marked as underway on their campus were “discussions on racism and racial equity for students, faculty, and staff” (85 percent), “hosting multicultural events on campus to promote cross-cultural learning” (76 percent), “increased efforts in recruiting and hiring underrepresented faculty and staff” (75 percent), and “reviewing institutional policies that may hinder equity” (68 percent).

​ACE's Pulse Point Surveys

Pulse Point surveys gather the insights of college and university leaders through a brief set of questions designed to get their take on the decisions, issues, and challenges they face.

Explore the SeriesDownload Spring Term Survey Part II PDF