College Presidents Say Challenges Remain as Students Return to Campus This Fall
October 25, 2021

ACE’s latest survey of college and university presidents shows leaders were confident and eager to welcome students back to campus this fall, while also acknowledging the still pressing concerns they have for the physical and mental health of students, faculty, and staff.

The results of the Pulse Point Survey of 230 college and university presidents, taken at the start of the fall 2021 semester provides a snapshot of what leaders were most concerned about or addressing on their campuses as many students returned in-person for the first time in more than a year, including decisions around how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

To start, presidents were presented with a list of 19 issues and asked to select up to five that they viewed as most pressing. Close to three-fourths (73 percent) of presidents cited “mental health of students” as among the most pressing issues. This was the sixth time student mental health was the most frequently cited pressing concern since April 2020, when ACE began conducting Pulse Point surveys in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other top concerns:

  • 59 percent identified “enrollment numbers for the next academic term” as a pressing issue
  • 54 percent selected “mental health of faculty and staff” as a pressing concern
  • 42 percent selected “long-term financial viability”
  • “Retaining current faculty and/or staff” and “racial equity issues” tied at 29 percent to round out the top five most pressing concerns

Student Mental Health

With student mental health persisting as a top concern for leaders, ACE sought to understand more about how presidents are addressing this on their campuses. When asked how the priority level of student mental health has changed at their institution, compared with years prior to the pandemic, 83 percent reported it was more of a priority. The majority of presidents (62 percent) also indicated student mental health was “worse” when compared with previous years.

When given a list of six commonly used supports they had implemented for student mental health, “hiring more staff to address student mental health” topped the list, as well as, “building relationships with providers in the local community,” both at 50 percent.

COVID Mitigation Strategies

At the start of the fall term, many communities across the nation were seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases, and presidents were asked to indicate their current level of concern around a potential COVID-19 outbreak on their campuses. Over half of the responding presidents (55 percent) indicated they had “moderate concern” about a potential outbreak, followed by “low concern” (29 percent), and “high concern” (15 percent).

Presidents were asked about what types of COVID-19 mitigation strategies they were implementing on their campuses. The majority (71 percent) reported that their state and/or local government had not restricted the type of mitigation strategies they could implement. Eighty-one percent of presidents said they had a mask mandate in place for students and 84 percent had that in place for faculty and staff. Just under half of all presidents reported that their institution had established a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students (46 percent), while 42 percent had that mandate in place for faculty and staff. Nearly half of responding presidents reported that their institution had “regular COVID-19 testing” in place for students and for faculty and staff (46 percent and 47 percent, respectively).

Fall Operating Plans

Presidents also reported on what modes of instruction they were predominantly using at the start of the fall term. More than half (59 percent) of all presidents said they were offering “predominantly in-person, with some online instruction.” Twenty-one percent were “exclusively in-person” and only 17 percent were “predominantly online, with some in-person instruction.” “Exclusively online instruction” was reported by 4 percent of presidents.

Support for Individuals Affected by the Crisis in Afghanistan

Many higher education leaders expressed their support for Afghan students and faculty following the crisis in Afghanistan in summer 2021. One in five presidents who responded to this survey reported that their institution was currently providing or planning to provide support to individuals affected by the crisis in Afghanistan. Presidents were most likely to indicate that they planned to “establish enrollment pathways for Afghan refugees and/or students,” followed by “creating teaching and/or research opportunities for Afghan scholars and professors.” Other supports include scholarships, temporary accommodations, and emergency funding.

Click here to see the full survey report and findings.​

Leaders Respond: COVID-19 On Campus

See the results of our Pulse Point surveys throughout 2020 and 2021. 

Read more​​​​