Students’ Preferences for Returning to Colleges and Universities During the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Discrete Choice Experiment

Tibor Besedes
About This Project

Professor Tibor BesedesWhen an emerging infectious disease outbreak occurs, such as Covid-19, institutions of higher education (IHEs) must weigh decisions about how to operate their campuses. These decisions entail whether campuses should remain open, how courses should be delivered (in-person, online, or a mixture of the two), and what safety plans should be enacted for those on campus. For example, should a school enforce social distancing, regular testing, or mask-wearing?

During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, these issues have weighed heavily on campus administrators who did not want to see enrollment plummet or Covid cases spike. Georgia Tech School of Economics Professor Tibor Besedes participated in a research project led by Professor Lauren Steimle of Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering to assess the forces that might prevent students from enrolling and those that would allow students to feel comfortable about staying enrolled. They are: students’ willingness to comply with health protocols; their perception of their classmates’ compliance; preference for in-person or online learning during a pandemic, and campus operations such as safety plans.

The research team comprised of six Georgia Tech faculty came to some important conclusions for IHEs to consider during the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.

The study, published in Socio-Economic Planning Sciences used an internet-based survey of 398 Georgia Tech industrial engineering students from June 25 to July 10, 2020. The survey asked students to choose whether to enroll or defer when presented with hypothetical scenarios related to types of course delivery, aspects of campus safety and expected compliance with health protocols.

Of those who responded, 29% were “low-concern” about their own safety while 54% were “moderate-concern” and 17% were “high-concern.”

The research team writes, “We found that scenarios that offered an on-campus experience, with large classes delivered online and small classes delivered in-person, strict safety protocols in terms of mask-wearing, testing, and residence halls, and lenient safety protocols in terms of social gatherings were those with the highest expected enrollment probabilities.”

A higher perceived risk of infection of Covid-19, a more suitable home environment, being older, and being less risk-seeking were significant factors for a person to choose online learning.

As one might expect, students didn’t want protocols limiting social gatherings.

The majority of students indicated a preference to enroll during the COVID-19 pandemic so long as sufficient safety measures were put in place and all classes were not entirely in-person. Since students overall preferred some safety measures requiring masks and COVID-19 testing on campus, IHEs may want to recommend or require wearing masks and doing some surveillance tests for all students, faculty, and staff.

Co-authors are Lauren N. Steimle, Yuming Sun, Lauren Johnson, Patricia Mokhtarian, Dima Nazzal, all of Georgia Tech. Read more: