Published: Nov. 10, 2020

Late last spring, CU Boulder invited all students enrolled during the spring 2020 semester to take the SERU COVID-19 student experience survey to better understand their academic and personal experiences during COVID-19 pandemic. At the close of the survey, 1505 graduate students had responded, yielding a response rate of 27%.

Below is an overview of the results that graduate students provided, along with the Graduate School’s response to how it used the survey data to plan for the 2020-21 academic year.  

Remote Learning and Academic Progress 

Of the graduate students surveyed, 63% reported having adapted well/very well to the new remote instruction implemented by CU Boulder in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, items such as lack of motivation for online learning, lack of interaction/communication with other students and a lack of access to appropriate study spaces were some of the main obstacles to transitioning to remote learning successfully.  

These obstacles reinforced our understanding of the value of in-person instruction and helped to shape the planning for the 2020-21 academic year. 

While the vast majority of graduate students (81%) reported being satisfied/very satisfied with the support of their advisor or faculty mentor for conducting research during the campus closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students reported a number of obstacles to their academic success during the pandemic closure. The top three obstacles were:

  1. Access to appropriate study space
  2. Inability to conduct research
  3. Inability to attend professional conferences

The Graduate School revised the criteria for its popular travel grant competition to acknowledge the transition to virtual conferences and redirected some of the unused funds to other means of supporting students. In addition, the Graduate School recognizes the negative impact that lab restrictions have on graduate students conducting research and has advocated that graduate students have continued access to labs, when appropriate, during campus’s Returning to Research and Creative Work, Phase I (limited) and Phase II (expanded).  

Just over a quarter (27%) of graduate students expect the COVID-19 pandemic to delay when they intend to graduate by a semester or a year.  

To assist students in completing their degrees, the Graduate School is adjusting its student funding priorities, including additional summer and dissertation fellowships. As well, the Graduate School has been discussing these concerns with departments and colleges so that there is a common understanding of the funding challenges and needs of our students. 


Recognizing that graduate students’ financial concerns are a priority and that they may be heightened by the uncertainty of the pandemic, the university announced last spring that there were no planned cuts to appointments for fall 2020. Nevertheless, 24% of graduate students reported feeling concerned/very concerned/extremely concerned about ability to pay for their education in fall 2020. Financial hardships that were reported included loss or reduction of income by other family members, increased technology expenses and unexpected increases in living expenses. Students experiencing a temporary financial hardship as a result of COVID-19 are encouraged to contact the Student Emergency Fund for more information and eligibility requirements.


Mental health concerns were and remain an area of heightened focus during this pandemic. Over a quarter (26%) of graduate students reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless more than half the days/nearly every day over a two-week period.    

On average, students felt supported by CU Boulder and that they belong here. Students reported supporting their community by checking in with friends and family (95%), as well as making donations (money, supplies, blood; 42%) and helping others obtain food or other necessities (28%). We are proud of the fortitude and caring of our graduate students and how they have supported one another through this time.   

The Graduate School understands that our graduate students need additional support now more than ever. With this in mind, we quickly moved all of our professional and community development workshops online when the university transitioned to remote learning last spring. Soon thereafter, we observed a sizable increase in participation, which has continued throughout the summer and now into the fall semester. We realize the need and the value that these resources bring our graduate students, and we continue to add additional opportunities and virtual events to support community and resilience among graduate students.  

On Oct. 22, 2020, the university announced an additional $1.8 million to expand student mental health and wellness, including additional clinical services that will be embedded in colleges and schools, and at least 13 more counselors during the next four years. Four positions will support graduate student needs, including work directly with the Graduate School. 


Nearly three-quarters of graduate students on teaching appointments who were engaged in teaching in spring 2020 reported having/mostly having the support and resources necessary to successfully transition to remote instruction during the semester. However, many graduate students on teaching appointments did not feel adequately supported in:

  • How to teach well remotely (60%)
  • Expectations relating to remote instruction (49%)
  • How to use Zoom, Canvas or other platforms for courses (41%)

The university has invested heavily during the past months to ensure that instructional personnel have the training and resources they need to succeed in the classroom. The Center for Teaching and Learning offers numerous resources specifically for graduate student teaching assistants and graduate part-time instructors.  

International Students  

The top concerns for international student respondents were:

  • Maintaining good health while studying in the U.S. (66%)
  • Medical insurance and health services (58%)
  • Managing immigration and visa status (56%)

When asked which aspects of their immigration status were among the most stressful during the pandemic, students responded with:

  • Travel restrictions (66%)
  • Managing student visa status (40%)
  • Impact of future employment-based visas (39%)

The Graduate School recognizes and empathizes with the significant hardships our international students have endured during the past several months of the pandemic. These hardships have been exacerbated by federal policy that has caused confusion and concern regarding international student visas and travel restrictions. Along with our colleagues in International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), we will continue to work with our international students to provide additional support and services to help them navigate these difficult times. We are also committed to taking action whenever an opportunity to advocate for our international student community is needed.  

Career Plans 

Graduate students weighed in with their thoughts about expected changes in the economy and academic job market. There was a noteworthy shift in expectations about employment after graduation: We saw a 9% drop in those expecting to work in academia. 

With this in mind, the Graduate School has increased its career support offerings to provide greater assistance for those students who may be shifting focus away from the academic market. In particular, the Graduate School, in conjunction with Career Services, has started a new series of workshops that include panels of CU alumni who speak to the transition from graduate school to careers in industry, government, nonprofits and small business.