Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: April 21

Focus on Fall Semester

Today’s Briefing analyzes publicly available online conversation in the U.S. and on Reddit and YouTube (which span beyond the U.S.) about the coronavirus and higher education from April 13–19. In this analysis of volume, topics, sentiment, and key audiences, we highlight speculation about the fall semester, conversations from and about Black students, and the reasons students’ families and friends are sharing joyful messages.

If you’d like to receive each Briefing in your inbox as soon as we publish it, sign up at You can also review all prior Briefings. Because of the changing nature of social media data and our understanding of the conversation, each briefing covers a distinct point in time. Comparisons from briefing to briefing may be helpful, but we can’t draw correlations like we could if we were using other datasets such as surveys or historical social media data.

Download a slide deck with the data from this post.

Conversation Volume Holds Steady

We identified about 476,000 mentions of the coronavirus and higher education April 13–19, ranging from 41,000–92,000 mentions per day. There was no change in volume from the same time period a week prior—this is the first week there hasn’t been a weekly drop in conversation volume since we started the Briefings in early March. Approximately five percent of all mentions referenced the fall semester or next semester.

Comparing higher-ed focused mentions and all mentions from April 13 to April 1940 percent of all mentions are higher ed focused. This is the highest percentage we’ve seen in a Briefing. While we made small changes to our higher ed-focused categorization before the April 14 Briefing to capture more relevant mentions, there was a large jump in higher ed-focused mentions on Thursday, April 16. That increase was almost entirely because people shared Harvard’s free online course offerings during the pandemic. The free courses were mentioned almost 19,000 times last week, and the link to the online course directory was the most linked-to web page in last week’s dataset.

Nerd Note that shows All Mentions Captures every online mention that includes terms related to coronavirus AND the higher education industry. Higher ed may be just a small part of the mention (e.g., a news story discussing the impact of the coronavirus in a metro area with a mention of campuses that closed). Higher Ed-Focused Mentions is a subset of All Mentions. It captures when a campus or the industry is the focus of a mention about coronavirus (e.g., a headline of a news article or in a social media post).

Remember, our industry-level analysis only captures general higher education mentions. If someone mentions the name or acronym of an institution without using a higher ed term (e.g., campus, university, college, classes, etc.), it’s not included in this analysis. Actual volume of conversation across the industry is likely much higher.

Fall Semester Conversation Was More Concentrated in News and Forums

While social media is the largest source for all mentions, higher ed-focused mentions, and mentions related to the fall semester and beyond, we see a different breakdown when we look at sources other than social media. In fact, we see a higher proportion of mentions emerging from the news and forums on the topic of the future of the fall semester compared to all mentions or higher ed-focused mentions. Specifically, 27 percent of mentions related to the fall semester and beyond surfaced within the news (compared to 12–15 percent of all mentions or higher ed-focused mentions), another 23 percent on forums (compared to 14 percent), and 48 percent on social media (compared to 65–72 percent). 

Since the conversation about fall semester was more concentrated in the news and forums than other conversation topics, it appears journalists are interested in this topic and it’s being explored in forums like Reddit more than in the general public (e.g, Twitter). I think we can expect to see an increase in conversation frequency on social media and forums over the next few weeks as the public is prompted to think about fall through media coverage and institutions communicate about it more.

Conversation from students continues to follow a different pattern. Their mentions are even more skewed to forums (mostly Reddit) than in our April 14 Briefing (61 percent of mentions vs. 59 percent from 4/14). Blog/Tumblr activity has really dropped, making up just 13 percent of conversation. Social media (mostly Twitter) has the remaining 26 percent. Remember that due to data access restrictions, we aren’t including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, or LinkedIn in our analysis. Your campus social media manager is the best source of information regarding conversation on those networks. Depending on the software used, social listening for a specific campus can include Facebook and Instagram mentions once account managers verify admin access.

Comparing content sources of social media, news, blogs/Tumbler, and forums among all mentions, higher-ed focused mentions, fall semester, and studentsGeneric Topic Trends Prompt Segmentation

Settle in and get ready for some segmentation. When I first looked at the top topics for last week, they were pretty one-dimensional. Let’s start with the top ten hashtags from all mentions, pictured in the following word cloud. #COVID19, #Coronavirus, and #RemoteLearning are all expected topics. The rest, that at a glance seem to indicate students are dutifully doing their homework, are actually from online cheating or “homework help” advertisements. Seven of the top ten hashtags are used by bots promoting scam services to students. We’ve mentioned this in the April 7 Briefing.

Word cloud showing top 10 hashtags All mentions

I got a similar feeling looking at the top fifty topics of higher ed-focused conversation, shown in the following word cloud. We already know why Harvard University is prominently featured, along with “online courses.” The general references to the pandemic and online learning are expected, as are Trump and Biden. We’ve seen in prior Briefings that Johns Hopkins is referenced on a regular basis in this conversation.

Word cloud showing top 50 topics higher ed-focused

Some of the smaller phrases were new to me, and I’ve been looking at this conversation for over a month now. I chose to focus on two related topics that appeared in the top 50: Meharry Medical College and the word “black.”

Topic Focus: Meharry Medical College and Black

Meharry Medical College, a historically black institution in Nashville, trended in our dataset toward the end of last week. First, because they announced they were weeks away from testing an anti-virus to prevent COVID-19. President James Hildreth was interviewed by multiple journalists, some of whom are just now publishing. Another contribution to the trending topic was a tweet from Tariq Nasheed pointing out that Dr. Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s personal physician who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after the entertainer’s death, is a Meharry graduate.

The word “black” is also in the top 100 topics. After removing phrases like “black out,” “black sheep,” and people with the name Black, the top 50 topics in the following word cloud highlight topics of relevance within higher ed-focused conversation about and from the Black community. The word cloud represents 2,180 mentions—while not an insignificant number, it’s just over one percent of the higher ed-focused data set. Segmented social listening analysis can identify and amplify minority voices that would otherwise be overshadowed by the majority.

Word cloud showing top 50 topics higher ed-focused black mentions

While some phrases were included in our top 100 topics, our segmentation also surfaces topics that wouldn’t otherwise stand out in our data, such as the following.

  • An April 15 press release (subsequently carried by multiple news outlets) from Student Loan Hero noting that “Black and Hispanic students report higher levels of food and housing insecurity due to the global pandemic than their white peers.”
  • An April 19 Associated Press story, “While Other Colleges Struggle, For-Profits Hope for Revival,” reports Strayer and Capella are telling students at historically black colleges and universities they can take free online classes this fall if their campuses don’t reopen on time. The release was picked up by The Washington Post and Breitbart News, as well as many other news sources. Wallace Boston, president of The American Public University System is quoted in this story, which is why he appears in the word cloud.
  • Watch The Yard hosted #YARDCON on Sunday, April 19 for Black college students who’ve been sent home from their campuses. The five-hour online event was reportedly attended by over 2,000 people.
  • An online campaign from Twitter users to inform the University of West Georgia of a racist video posted by one of their admitted students. This is a continuation of activity you may have noticed in the past, when members of the public came across racist content from college students. Activist and writer Shaun King shared the video from his Facebook page on April 17. The story has since been covered on multiple websites, including Essence. The students were reportedly expelled from their high school.
  • “Kelly” is a reference to Kansas Governor Laura Kelly; disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Black communities were included in coverage from Kansas last week.
  • Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started a COVID-19 relief fund to raise awareness of the impact of the pandemic on minority communities.

We know the pandemic isn’t affecting everyone equally. Factors such as race, socioeconomic status, mental health, sexual orientation, and gender identity influence how an individual experiences the pandemic (the latter two appear most prominently when students return home to an environment less supportive than what they experienced on campus). Ensure you have the ability to listen to and advocate for the less prominent voices in your campus community.

Topic Focus: Fall and Next Semester

I also performed a topic segmentation to identify the 60 most common phrases, emojis, and names in approximately 23,000 mentions of the fall or “next semester.”

Word cloud showing top 60 topics all mentions fall semester

A large portion of this conversation was driven by approximately 4,000 shares of the April 15 CNN article “Universities begin considering the possibility of canceling in-person classes until 2021.” The college football season remains a popular topic (as we saw in the April 14 Briefing). Some of the less common phrases, including “hiring recruiters” are from the same article about for-profit colleges that showed in the first topic cloud—the lede of it is, “Some of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges are ramping up advertising, hiring recruiters and offering discounts for online classes as they predict the coronavirus pandemic will push unemployed workers back to school, helping revive the industry.” I read that sentence the same day I read about non-profit institutions freezing or decreasing marketing budgets and considering laying off marketing staff; I’d say more but those thoughts are probably a better fit for an editorial than a research briefing.

Negative Sentiment Decreased

Negative sentiment decreased in both higher ed-focused mentions and student mentions, while positive mentions increased slightly. Student conversations remained highly negative (43 percent), but that’s consistent with what we observed earlier this month in our April 3 Briefing.

Sentiment comparison of positive, neutral, and negative between higher-ed focused mentions and students mentionsAudience Insights: Focus on Hidden Voices of Students and Families

When the conversation is this large it’s hard to find the individual voices. While almost 149,000 individual accounts contributed to higher ed-focused conversation, only 3 percent of the mentions are first-person accounts from individuals who reveal an affiliation with a campus. These hidden voices represent lived experiences that provide valuable insight as you craft your communication and service delivery.

Most of the first-person mentions we identified were from students or their families and friends (n=5,770).

First-person conversation by audience, showing students, family & friends, alumni, prospective, and admittedFamily and Friends Find Moments of Joy

As long as we’ve performed emotional analysis of online mentions from students and their family and friends for these Briefings, sadness and anger have been the predominant emotions, with students expressing more anger and family and friends expressing more sadness. This trend is holding steady for students, but last week their families and friends were almost as likely to express joy (31 percent) as sadness (34 percent). While family and friends still grieve the loss of their students’ college experiences, they’re finding moments to celebrate. Families spread the word when campuses recognize their students’ accomplishments, like this mother and news anchor who shared Binghamton University’s tweet about her son who drives an ambulance on the weekends, or the mayor of Flagstaff, Arizona, who celebrated her cousin on Instagram and Twitter after Caldwell University featured her. Some are also praising their students’ campuses, like this mom who tweeted about the call she received from Florida Atlantic University to check in on her student.

When students express anger, two phrases are most prominent: time and online classes.

Emotion comparison showing anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness among students and family and friendsStudents Speculate About Fall 2020 on Reddit

Current students are running through Fall 2020 scenarios in their head, and on r/college, over 300 of them have shared “how they would react if their campus announced that the fall semester would start online.” The top-rated responses all received over 100 points (i.e., the net total of redditor up-votes minus any down-votes). You’ll quickly see how responses and similar sentiment contributes to the anger mentioned previously.

  • Be annoyed they have to continue living with their parents
  • Panic (from a STEM student with multiple lab courses)
  • Be very upset
  • Cancel enrollment and wait another year (from a community college student planning to transfer)
  • Be angry
  • Take a semester off if it doesn’t interfere with a scholarship
  • Take a gap semester

Smaller threads are popping up in r/college on the same topic. In “Am I being a brat about potential fall online classes,” the poster says he’ll refuse to take them online in the fall. Most commenters agree. The now deleted post titled, “Seeing people talking about the potential for online classes in the fall is killing me” has 165 comments. Many respondents agree, including a professor.

Over on r/EngineeringStudents, a poster asks, “Do you think the Fall 2020 semester will be online for your school?” The top-rated response: “I sure as hell hope not.”

On Twitter, a graduate student threatened to drop out if courses went online with a Hannah Montana meme.

In most of these threads, a small minority say they expect the quality and support for online teaching to be better in fall, if it must continue. If you believe that is the case for your institution, now is the time to start setting that expectation for students, and explaining how you’ll make it happen.

Summary and Recommendations

Conversation volume held steady compared to last week. Sources of conversation for all mentions, higher ed-focused mentions, and student conversation were similar to last week. Conversation looking ahead to the fall semester and beyond was more concentrated in news and forums. Harvard’s free online courses were a top topic, along with advertising for online cheating from bot-like accounts. Further segmentation identified conversation from and about the Black community (just over one percent of higher ed-focused mentions), which revealed reports of food and housing insecurity in the Black and Hispanic communities, marketing from for-profit institutions targeting students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and an online gathering of Black college students. Meharry Medical College was prominent in this conversation and higher ed-focused conversation due to their work towards an anti-virus against COVID-19. Students are still sad and angry, mostly related to their time and online courses. Family and friends are almost as joyful as they are sad, partly because they’re celebrating their students’ accomplishments. Multiple threads on Reddit illuminate student feelings toward an all-online Fall 2020 semester.

  • Verify you have appropriate resources to support online conversation. Conversation may have leveled off, but it’s still occurring at an elevated rate and doesn’t stop on the evenings and weekends (it never did). If you haven’t already, check in with your front-line social media staff to see how they’re doing. Offer more resources to them if you can. Tony Dobies from West Virginia University expands on this in his article, “Higher Ed Response to COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Critical Value of Social Media,” with an appropriate subheading: Care for Your Social Media People. Non-stop work cannot be the new normal. I spoke with a social media manager (who handles many other responsibilities on her campus) last week who’s worked 10–12 hour days every day since March 16. I know she’s not the only one. She doesn’t feel like a hero; she’s looking for a new job.
  • Provide evidence to ease students’ fall semester apprehension. They’re incredibly nervous, and some seem ready to bail if Fall 2020 happens online. Help ease their fears by providing proof that you’ve thought about their needs and will provide a valuable experience. Explain how online courses will be different than they are now. Share your contingency plans. Pay special attention to the students who’ve depended on an in-person environment for activities like labs, music performance, and theater instruction. Beloit College has a five-point action plan that’s highlighted on the front page of their website. Some students still may consider stopping out for a semester or a year, so be kind as you share the risks of that. Be real with them. In addition to the news specifically discussing the fall semester, they’re hearing future predictions like the April 20 episode of The Daily, The Next Year (or Two) of the Pandemic. And those are, well … scary.
  • Find and advocate for marginalized voices. We know the pandemic isn’t affecting everyone in the same way. Factors such as race, socioeconomic status, mental health, sexual orientation, and gender identity influence how an individual experiences the pandemic (the latter two appear most prominent when students return home to an environment less supportive than what they experienced on campus). Ensure you have the ability to find, listen to, and advocate for the less prominent voices in your campus community.

Stay Connected with Future Briefings

The Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing is Campus Sonar’s first real-time industry research project. If you find it valuable, please let us know (tweet us at @CampusSonar, email, or comment on this post). I have a special request for you this week. If you’re regularly sharing this Briefing with your staff, or referring to it in meetings as you plan strategy, can you let me know?

If you have additional questions about the conversation you’d like us to consider for a future briefing, reach out. We’d love to hear them.

I’d like to give a special thank you to the folks who’ve mentioned our Briefings in their own work in the last week.

We’ll be back on Tuesday, April 28 with our next Briefing. There’s a special treat for you this week. On Wednesday, April 22, at 12:00 p.m. CDT, Sonarian Steve App will join the folks at SimpsonScarborough for their What’s Ahead Webinar, an informal discussion highlighting some of the best examples from around the world of higher ed and a look to what's ahead for marketing and communication professionals. Register now and they’ll send you the recording if you can’t make it live.

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Subscribe to the NewsletterThe post Coronavirus Higher Education Industry Briefing: April 22 originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.