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


  • Steimle, Lauren
  • Sun, Yuming
  • Johnson, Lauren
  • Besedeš, Tibor
  • Mokhtarian, Patricia
  • Nazzal, Dima


Importance: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions of higher education (IHEs) are weighing decisions about when and how to reopen their campuses for the Spring 2021 term. Schools are revisiting their plans to use in-person, online, or hybrid (a mixture of in-person and online) modes of course delivery, as well as their safety plans. However, there is still limited knowledge about how to properly plan for campus reopening decisions, including course delivery and campus safety, to maintain enrollment and keep students and faculty safe. Objectives: To assess 1) students’ willingness to comply with health protocols and contrast to their perception of their classmates’ compliance, 2) whether students preferred in-person or online learning during a pandemic, and 3) The importance weights of different aspects of campus operations (i.e., modes of course delivery and safety plans) for students when they decide to enroll or defer. Design, setting, and participants: An internet-based survey of college students took place from June 25, 2020 to July 10, 2020. Participants included 398 industrial engineering students at a medium-size public university in Atlanta, Georgia. The survey included a discrete choice experiment with questions that asked students to choose whether to enroll or defer when presented with hypothetical scenarios related to Fall 2020 modes of course delivery and aspects of campus safety. The survey also asked students about expected compliance with health protocols, whether they preferred in-person or online courses, and sociodemographic information. Main outcomes and measures: We estimated students’ willingness to comply with potential health protocols, choices between in-person and online learning, and the importance of different modes of course delivery and safety measures when deciding to enroll or defer. Results: The response rate of students who participated in the survey was 20.8%. A latent class model showed three classes of students: those who were “low-concern” (comprising a 29% expected share of the sample), those who were “moderate-concern” (54%) and those who were “high-concern” (17%). 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 broadly the scenarios with the highest expected enrollment probabilities. The decision to enroll or defer for all students was largely determined by the mode of delivery for courses and the safety measures on campus around COVID-19 testing and mask-wearing. A logistic regression model showed that higher perceived risk of infection of COVID-19, better living suitability for online courses, being older, and less risk seeking were significant factors for a person to choose online learning. Students stated for themselves and their classmates that they would comply with some but not all health protocols against COVID-19, especially those limiting social gatherings. Conclusions and relevance: The majority of students indicated a preference to enroll during the COVID-19 pandemic so long as sufficient safety measures are put in place and all classes were not entirely in-person. As IHEs consider different options for campus operations during pandemics, they should consider the heterogenous preferences among their students. Offering flexibility in course modes may be a way to appeal to many students who vary in terms of their concern about the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, since students overall preferred some safety measures placed around mask-wearing 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. Students were expecting themselves and their fellow classmates to comply with some but not all health protocols, which may help IHEs identify protocols that need more education and awareness, like the limits on social gatherings and the practice of social distancing at social gatherings.

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  • Steimle, Lauren & Sun, Yuming & Johnson, Lauren & Besedeš, Tibor & Mokhtarian, Patricia & Nazzal, Dima, 2020. "Students’ Preferences for Returning to Colleges and Universities During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Discrete Choice Experiment," OSF Preprints mzxs6, Center for Open Science.
  • Handle: RePEc:osf:osfxxx:mzxs6
    DOI: 10.31219/

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    2. Tomasz Gajderowicz & Maciej Jakubowski & Sylwia Wrona & Ghadah Alkhadim, 2023. "Is students’ teamwork a dreamwork? A new DCE-based multidimensional approach to preferences towards group work," Palgrave Communications, Palgrave Macmillan, vol. 10(1), pages 1-13, December.

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