- More than three-quarters of four-year undergraduate students who considered stopping out in the past six months said it was due to emotional stress, according to a new survey from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation. That's up from just 42% in 2020.
- Nearly two-thirds of associate degree students said the same, up from 24% in 2020. Among bachelor's and associate degree students, about one-third cited the pandemic and attendance costs impacting their ability to remain enrolled.
- Researchers polled current students, prospective students and former students who stopped out either before or during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The high levels of emotional stress should be a call to action for higher education leaders, said Stephanie Marken, executive director of education research at Gallup.
"Mental health crises have been popping up on campuses across the country for several years, pre-pandemic, but COVID-19 really exacerbated these issues for students," Marken said. "This is a really critical time for educational leaders and institutions to refine their mental health programming."
Colleges face the continuous challenge of both offering resources to students and ensuring those who need them most are aware of what's available. If the support structures aren't easy to find, they won't serve their purpose, said Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at Lumina.
"Institutions can't lack counselors or create offices that are down dark, unfindable hallways," Brown said. "You can't just provide academic help for students and ignore their mental well-being."
The quick pivot to virtual learning when the pandemic hit showed that colleges are capable of changing the status quo for the sake of student safety and success.
Offering virtual classes can be a good first step for colleges, but it alone is not going to break down existing barriers to an accessible education for students, Brown said. Providing emergency food and housing aid can show enrollees that colleges support them as people, not just students, she said.
Needed improvements to communication and outreach are a recurring theme throughout issues highlighted in the survey. When it comes to cost, colleges can reach more students by better conveying the true cost of attendance versus the sticker price, according to Marken.
More than half of students who aren't enrolled say the cost of college is a top reason they haven't resumed their education, the survey found. But many students pay far less than the sticker price, or advertised cost.
"Most students see the advertised total cost of attendance and aren't aware of grants or scholarships," Marken said. "I worry that if we don't better communicate the real cost, we'll continue to see either flat or continuously declining enrollments."
Colleges have shed about 1 million students since the pandemic began, according to fall 2021 enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
One positive note from the survey is how many past, current and prospective students see college as valuable. Some 61% of those actively enrolled said higher education will help them to pursue a more fulfilling career, and 60% said it will help them earn more money. Of students who were enrolled during the pandemic but stopped out, 68% said they were considering continuing their education to broaden their skills.
"Those who had stopped out or had never enrolled are still reporting that they think an education beyond high school is a pathway to a better job and a better life. The challenge is, cost is still keeping so many of them out of higher education," said Marken. "We need to affirm that their thinking is correct and that it's all worth it."
Associate degrees and certificate programs generally come with lower costs and shorter times to graduation than bachelor's degrees. Both have seen a bump in interest, according to Marken.
"We're seeing a real response from the market for short-term, credential-based experiences where students are confident they'll graduate with specific skills," said Marken.