Students’ trust in college depends on leadership

Lower trust levels found among certain racial groups; trust levels changed as pandemic started



Trust and well-being are related. When students feel confident and connected, they are more likely to enjoy the benefits of their college experience.

ANNE-MARIE GREGGS, Evergreen reporter

Students’ level of trust in a college can impact overall educational experience, WSU researchers found.

The research found that trust can influence whether a student will finish college as well as whether a student participates in university programs or seeks out advice from advisers, said Kevin Fosnacht, lead author and researcher at Indiana University.

One finding was the increase and decrease of student trust within racial groups after COVID-19 transformed learning, he said.

The research investigated students’ level of trust before the pandemic started in March 2020, and the researchers concluded studying in May 2020. This gave the researchers insight into how a pandemic may affect the levels of trust within colleges, Fosnacht said.

African American student trust declined after the pandemic prompted the first shutdown while levels of trust increased slightly for Hispanics and whites, he said.

It is hypothesized that the decrease in trust is associated with students whose parents never went to college. Parents of students who had a bachelor’s degree or higher had increased trust after the first wave of the pandemic, Fosnacht said.

Parents with a college education are more likely to be able to provide internet access at home for their children and provide assistance as needed with more flexibility than an individual without a college education, he said. 

Even before the pandemic, the research found that low levels of trust were prevalent within certain groups, said Shannon Calderone, assistant professor for the WSU College of Education.

“One consistent finding was the lower level of trust among students of color compared to that of white students,” she said.

It is likely that in the case of students of color, they enter college or university with an already diminished sense of trust due to prior experiences with racism. It is reasonable that these trust perceptions would then extend to their college experience as well, Calderone said.

A student can lose trust in a college if their concerns are dismissed by a staff member or by administrative decisions that do not include the student’s opinion, Fosnacht said.

Researchers made these observations by selecting student participants who were enrolled to attend college in the fall and were pursuing their bachelor’s degree, he said.

The researchers are associated with The National Survey of Student Engagement, which provides surveys to students and reports to colleges to help improve educational quality by better understanding the experiences and concerns of students, he said.

“It’s the overall arching goal to improve the educational quality,” Fosnacht said.

The participants came from 29 schools across the country with a total of 8,351 student participants, he said. They were asked questions to determine their levels of trust within their educational institution and other social institutions, such as the government and economy.

A student’s level of trust was measured by asking how much they trust different college leaders, including administrators, faculty, staff, advisers and student services staff, Fosnacht said.

The study found that academic advisers and faculty members were the most trusted by students, he said.

Trust is associated with a sense of well-being. The more confident and connected a student feels within their institution, the more likely they are to enjoy the benefits of their college experience, Calderone said.

“The greater a student’s sense of trust, the greater their connection to their institution,” she said.

The researchers predict low levels of student trust mean fewer students return for another year at that college, Fosnacht said.

Without trust, a student may feel a sense of ambiguity or a disconnect that may lead to a diminished sense of belonging to a larger campus community, Calderone said.