Mental health, cost concerns driving students away from higher ed, report shows

As colleges work to reverse ongoing enrollment declines, a new report sheds light on key reasons students are stopping out. According to a Gallup-Lumina survey of 11,227 U.S. adults in fall 2021, 76% of four-year college students who considered stopping out in the last six months said they did so due to emotional stress, an increase of 34 percentage points from the previous year. Meanwhile, 63% of students enrolled in associate degree programs who considered stopping out reported emotional stress as a reason, up 39 percentage points.

Related: Colleges work to meet students’ mental health needs as dropout rates increase >

The survey included currently enrolled students, adults who enrolled in a certificate or degree program before COVID-19 but have since unenrolled, adults who enrolled during COVID-19 and unenrolled recently, and adults who never enrolled. Although mental health was the most commonly cited reason for wanting to stop out, many students also mentioned COVID-19, cost of attendance, and coursework difficulty.

Why do students leave? Why do they stay?

Students of color and low-income students currently enrolled in four-year institutions were more likely to say that remaining in college was “difficult” or “very difficult,” or to consider stopping out, according to the survey. Among students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students and multiracial students were most likely to say it was challenging to remain enrolled, at 48% and 47%, respectively.

Among students in two-year degree programs, 50% of multiracial students and 46% of Black students said it was difficult or very difficult to remain enrolled, the highest among all student groups. Multiracial students were also most likely to think about unenrolling from their programs: 55% of multiracial associate’s degree students and 48% of multiracial bachelor’s degree students had considered stopping out in the past six months.

Student decisions around stopping out and persistence also varied by income level. Forty-five percent of students from families making less than $24,000 a year reported that it was difficult or very difficult to remain in college, compared to 28% of students from households with a yearly income of $240,000 or more, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More than half of adults who unenrolled from a bachelor’s or associate’s degree program cited college costs as a reason.

Meanwhile, currently enrolled respondents cited financial support and certainty about the value of a college education as reasons why they remain enrolled. Fifty-one percent of enrolled students said financial aid was a very important reason they were able to remain enrolled, while 49% cited confidence in the value of their eventual degree.

Related: 10 hallmarks of a student-friendly financial aid offer >

Educational goals and career advancement also were top reasons students persisted. Among enrolled students, 61% said higher education would prepare them for a fulfilling career, while 60% said they believed a college degree would lead to a larger salary.

Outreach to enrolled, returning students

The high levels of student stress reported in the survey should be a call to action, Stephanie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup, tells Higher Ed Dive. Marken and Coutney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at Lumina Foundation, suggest three steps institutions can take to help reverse barriers to student persistence:

  1. Make mental health support accessible to college students 
  2. Provide emergency food and housing aid
  3. Clearly communicate the true cost of attending college, including available grants and scholarships

Related: Preventing small, unexpected expenses from becoming big obstacles >

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