College Students Return to Campus Amid Delta Surge

School Library busy with students studying
Thursday, September 30 2021 Jeff Marshall EVP, Customer Solutions Categories:

It’s Back to Campus time and many college students are returning to campus after a long pandemic absence. With the delta variant surging, we wondered how enthusiastic people have been about getting back to in-person college this year. So, we took a look at over 71,000 expressions over the past few years to get a sense.

Red and green bar graph displaying the sentiment for the 'Back to Campus' conversation from 2019 to 2021

As the graph above shows, sentiment toward returning to college is getting back to pre-pandemic levels.  In 2019, before the arrival of COVID-19 to the US, a strong majority of expressions were positive with the enthusiasm for returning to college after a summer away strong. In 2020, the sentiment balance nearly flipped, with people expressing serious concerns about safety, cumbersome protocols, and the potential of a significantly degraded education experience.

Here in 2021, positive sentiment is back on the rise. People are looking forward to a more normal college experience. Still, in recent months we saw a significant amount of concern expressed in the conversation.  As we looked closer into the data, we saw a multi-faceted set of issues driving people’s feelings, from vaccine mandates (primarily on the positive side) to concerns about vaccine effectiveness in a college setting and whether or not colleges would be able to create a safe, normal college experience in the near term.

As the conversation evolved over the past several months, different issues drove discussion and sentiment about returning to campus.  In the spring, prior to the rise of the delta variant, the CDC hinted that vaccinated students should be able to have a “normal” school year starting in the fall. Subsequently announcements of vaccine mandates from major school systems, such as California’s UC and CSU campuses, bolstered confidence in a return to a normal college experience in the fall.

Interestingly, the rise of the delta variant did not seem to derail enthusiasm. In fact, as the summer wore on, non-pandemic topics–such as the college gender education gap–gained prominence for the first time in months.

Because so much of the recent return-to-college conversation has been about vaccines, we wanted to understand people’s opinions and attitudes about vaccine mandates more deeply. We isolated that portion of the conversation and took a look at sentiment levels.

The first thing we noticed about this sub-conversation–vaccines and the return to college was how little people expressed strong emotions. This neutral tenor suggests that vaccines and mandates are, for most, no longer controversial, but just an accepted aspect of their return to college. The negative portion of the conversation, though small, did outweigh the positive portion, and it included both sides of the vaccine debate.  Some expressed concerns about effects of the vaccine and overreach of mandates, and others complained of some institutions requiring masks but not vaccines (as well as outrage over the advent of forged vaccine cards). Interestingly, the delta variant occupied very little of the conversation, indicating the degree to which people have confidence in vaccine mandates and safety protocols in spite of the surge in cases.

Keeping a finger on the pulse of rapidly evolving conversations helps colleges, companies, foundations and governments respond effectively to the people  they serve. To learn more about how Narrative Analytics can help you understand people’s needs, contact us at