The independent news organization of Duke University

COVID-19 pandemic impacted first-years' living situations, but many still found community

Editor's note: This story is part of a series about the Class of 2024 based on a survey conducted by The Chronicle. You can read more about our methodology and limitations here, or see all of our survey coverage here

In a normal semester, first-year students would live together on East Campus. This year, the University’s decision to de-densify campus led to a variety of living situations, with some students remaining at home and others moving off campus.

The Chronicle’s survey asked first-years about their fall semester living situations and sense of campus community, with questions ranging from where students were able to find friends to how much the pandemic affected their ability to find community.

The majority of respondents, 95%, indicated that they were living on campus at the time The Chronicle’s survey was administered. Of the students living off campus, 86.7% stayed at home and 13.3% were remote in Durham. All the students in our survey who studied remotely in Durham hailed from North Carolina. Domestic first-years who stayed at home were more likely to be from North Carolina than from any other state. 

Among domestic students living on campus, the top five states were North Carolina (15.9%), California (10.1%), Florida (8.3%), Texas (8%) and New York (7.6%). This aligns with typical admissions trends from these states.

Of those living on campus in the fall, 93% indicated they planned to stay on campus in the spring, 3.5% said they were unsure and 3.1% said they planned to go home. Of those who stayed at home in the fall, 84.6% planned to go to campus in the spring and the remainder were unsure.

Despite drastic changes to the traditional campus environment, 73.5% of first-years “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed that they were able to find community this year. 

However, more than 60% of first-years reported experiencing “a great deal” or “a lot” of negative effects on their ability to find community during the fall semester. Only about 2% indicated that the pandemic had no negative effects at all on their ability to find community.

International students more likely to stay home, less likely to find community

Although 61.5% of international students lived on campus, a greater proportion of international first-years stayed at home than domestic first-years. Just 2.8% of domestic first-years stayed at home, while almost 40% of international first-years did. 

Of the international first-years that stayed at home in the fall, 60% cited difficulties traveling and 40% cited safety concerns as the primary reasons. 

Every international respondent in our survey indicated that they planned to come to campus in the spring semester. Of the domestic respondents, 75% reported they planned to return to campus, and 25% said they were unsure.

Moreover, international students were much less likely than domestic students to report that they had found community at the time the survey was administered. Compared to 75.6% of domestic students who “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that they were able to find community, only 38.5% of international students similarly agreed. The majority—53.9%—of international students “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed that they were able to find community.

The COVID-19 pandemic had the greatest effect on international students’ ability to find community, with all international students saying that it negatively impacted them at least “a moderate amount” and more than half indicating it affected them “a great deal.” Meanwhile, 87.4% of domestic students said it had at least a moderate effect. All respondents who reported “no” or “a little” negative effects were domestic students.

Mona Tong

Pandemic disproportionately affects lower-income students’ living situations and ability to find community

First-years in the below-$40,000 income bracket were the most likely to have stayed home in the fall. Compared to 2.4% of students in the above-$500,000 income bracket who stayed home, 12% of students in the below-$40,000 bracket did. In general, as incomes increased, fewer students tended to stay home.


Mona Tong


Of domestic students who stayed at home, 25% cited financial reasons and 37.5% cited safety and other considerations as the primary reasons for not coming to campus. 

First-years from an income bracket of $125,000 or less were slightly less likely to agree that they had found community at the time the survey was administered than first-years from an income bracket of above $125,000. Compared to 76% of upper-income students who “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that they found community, 70.1% of lower-income students similarly agreed.

First-years from an income bracket of $125,000 or less were also more likely to report that the pandemic negatively affected their abilities to find community. Of students in the lower income bracket, 74.7% said that the pandemic negatively affected them finding community “a lot” or “a great deal,” compared to 57.7% of students in an upper income bracket.


Mona Tong


On-campus students with in-person classes more likely to have found community, at-home students less likely

Of those respondents who “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that they found community, 99.1% lived on campus in the fall semester. Although the majority of students living on campus reported that they found community, not all did—17.6% of on-campus students indicated they “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed that they found community.

In contrast, the majority of first-years living at home indicated that they had not found community, with 69.2% reporting that they “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed that they had found community. Of students at home, 23.1% said they “neither agreed nor disagreed” in comparison to 5.3% of students living on campus.


Mona Tong


Furthermore, 92.3% of first-year respondents who stayed at home in the fall reported that the pandemic negatively impacted their ability to find community “a lot” or “a great deal”—compared to 62% of first-years who lived on campus. All of the respondents who stayed at home reported some level of impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Mona Tong


Although most students that found community said they had in-person classes, the largest group of respondents said they found community in their residence halls.

Students in both the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering primarily found community in their dorms, with 57.3% of Trinity students and 50.8% of Pratt students citing this as the main place for such community-building. Trinity students were also more likely to find community during orientation week, with 11.8% answering that they did while no Pratt students in our survey indicated such.


Mona Tong


FOCUS, Trinity students more likely to have found community

Overall, nearly 74% of respondents “strongly agreed” or “somewhat agreed” that they had found community since matriculating. However, FOCUS students were more likely to find community, with approximately 84.3% “strongly” or “somewhat” agreeing. In comparison, 66.2% of students who were not in FOCUS “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that they had found community.

Additionally, 13.3% of FOCUS students said they “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed they had found community this year, in comparison to 24.4% of non-FOCUS students.


Mona Tong



Mona Tong


This could be related to students’ living situations and course formats. The vast majority—97.6%—of students in the FOCUS program lived on campus in the fall semester and had at least one in-person FOCUS class. Most of the students had two in-person FOCUS courses. 

FOCUS students were more likely than students overall to have at least one in-person class: 95% compared to 85%. For students that were in FOCUS and had in-person classes, just under half only had in-person courses offered through FOCUS.

Similarly, Trinity students were more likely to say they had found community—77.8% “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed in comparison to 60.8% of Pratt students. This could be partially due to FOCUS, as just under half of Trinity students said they were in a FOCUS.

Discussion

Share and discuss “COVID-19 pandemic impacted first-years' living situations, but many still found community ” on social media.