How the Pandemic Revealed College Students’ Challenges

About the author : Brett Ladd

CEO, Sodexo Campus

Published on : 3/15/23
  • As many of us look back on our time in college, a few traditional campus experiences often come to mind: meeting new people, making friends, lively class discussions that challenge our thinking, even stressing over final exams. These experiences are still hallmarks of higher education today, but a lot has also changed. For some college students, the realities of their day-to-day lives have become much more challenging as they grapple with the need to balance myriad responsibilities, competing priorities and financial considerations with their pursuit of a degree. It’s that gap between the old and the new that gives us opportunity.

    The latest chapter of the President to President thought leadership series explores this shift. In “Unprecedented,” Northern Virginia Community College President Anne M. Kress, Ph.D., describes how the pandemic threw a spotlight on the issues some college students face. The struggles of students who work in addition to taking classes, time poverty among students who are caretakers, financial pressures and disparities in resources and access were all made more apparent—and often exacerbated—as the pandemic unfolded. The ramifications of inequity also became harder to ignore, as some students faced challenges accessing the technology that became vital to continuing their education remotely.

    Although these struggles were always present for some students, the pandemic brought them into focus and made them part of the larger conversation around higher education. The findings of Sodexo’s 2022-2023 Student Lifestyle Survey echo what Dr. Kress noted in the President to President chapter. We surveyed undergraduate students about a broad range of topics, including what concerns them most, what drives their decisions and what they expect on campus. Their responses reveal that many students are struggling in a few key areas


    Financial Considerations and Food Insecurity

    Money is a major source of stress, with four out of five students reporting that they are concerned about finances. For 81% of students, affordability is the top factor in choosing a college. Worries over money persist even after students have enrolled, with almost half of students stating they are highly concerned about managing their day-to-day finances while in school. Expanding access to financial assistance could help, as more than half of students report that they would have been unable to attend college without some form of financial aid.

    With costs for everyday items continuing to rise, many students have been forced to choose between food and other necessities. Among college students we surveyed, 41% admit to skipping meals to save money. Campus food pantries are one option for addressing food insecurity and easing students’ financial burdens. Sodexo is also working with our campus partners to identify new ways of fighting hunger on college campuses, such as our partnership with Swipe Out Hunger. The program provides students facing food insecurity with free, nutritious meals on campus, and it does so discreetly to ensure that students never feel self-conscious about enjoying a meal in the dining hall with their friends.


    Mental and Physical Health and Well-Being

    Roughly half of students are concerned about the state of their personal health and well-being, and these issues can have significant ramifications for long-term success. For example, among the one-third of students who have considered dropping out, 60% cite health and mental health problems as their top reason. These issues are prevalent, with more than 60% of students reporting feeling overwhelmed and anxious at school.

    A core component of well-being is a sense of social connection, something that many students struggled with in recent years. College campuses can help address this issue by providing opportunities for students to connect with their peers and participate in campus culture. Campus dining is a top driver of social engagement, with 87% of students reporting that eating together is the most typical way that they socialize with friends.


    Professional Development and Career Opportunities

    Students are already concerned about their futures beyond graduation, and they’re looking for guidance and support. Internships are a highly in-demand form of career development, with 54% of students identifying internships as the most meaningful career service for securing a job after graduation. Unfortunately, the percentage of students who obtained internships in 2022 dropped to 33%, down from 42% in 2020.  

    Sodexo’s Student Internship Program provides meaningful opportunities for students to develop their skills and align with potential job opportunities for the future. Paid positions are available in areas such as sustainability, marketing, nutrition, management and more. These roles enable students to explore potential fields and launch successful careers after graduation.

    Read the Student Lifestyle Survey Report