‘A Condemnation’: Under Mental Health Strains, Students Weigh Quitting...

Mental Health

‘A Condemnation’: Under Mental Health Strains, Students Weigh Quitting College

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Mar 12, 2024

‘A Condemnation’: Under Mental Health Strains, Students Weigh Quitting College

When college students think about quitting, it’s most likely because of mental health strain or stress.

That’s according to the recent data from the “State of Higher Education Study,” conducted by the analytics company Gallup and the private foundation Lumina.

For the study, researchers interviewed 6,015 enrolled students, 5,012 formerly enrolled students who never completed their program and 3,005 adults who never enrolled in higher education. This particular study is part of a larger attempt to understand American attitudes about college when more people are questioning whether rising college costs are truly worth it, tracing back to the pandemic.

The most important lessons so far? How startlingly pressing concerns over mental health and well-being are for college enrollment and participation, according to one of the researchers.

Of all those surveyed for this latest study, 35 percent had contemplated “stopping out,” or ceasing to complete their coursework. However, despite small increases in college enrollment for Black and Hispanic students, the latest survey recorded that those students still consider leaving college at a higher rate. In the survey, 42 percent of Hispanic students reported they had considered stopping out, compared to 40 percent of Black students and 31 percent of white students.

Those numbers have remained relatively consistent over the past couple of years. But the reasons students are leaving have shifted.

Students now consider ceasing their postsecondary pursuits primarily because of emotional stress, mental health and cost, according to the report. And mental health and stress are at the top. The number of students tempted to leave college because of mental health or well-being has increased, with 54 percent of all students citing emotional stress — and 43 percent citing personal mental health — as reasons they’d leave.

While not shocking, it is disappointing.

The numbers rose during the pandemic, and researchers had hoped that this was a pandemic-related phenomenon and that the emotional stress students are feeling would decrease to pre-pandemic norms, says Stephanie Marken, a senior partner at Gallup who’s responsible for their education research division. But then, it remained at an all-time high. “I think that represents just a new normal,” Marken says.

An optimistic reading of these findings would be that students simply feel more comfortable sharing their struggles with researchers and so researchers are noticing higher levels of strain, Marken says. But there are other concerns: Inflation has forced people to work more and has triggered more financial stress, Marken notes. Financial issues can also manifest as stress and worry, making it much harder to engage with coursework, she adds. Students these days also tend to have more competing responsibilities with school than students a decade or two ago, Marken says, such as caregiving.

Regardless, at least one researcher is frightened that this may mean that more students will enroll in college only to then leave without a degree.

Students who start college but don’t finish are worse off than a student who never went in the first place, Marken says. They don’t see a pay bump from earning a certificate or degree. They possibly took out loans to go to school and also missed time in the workplace. They are also more likely to struggle to pay bills, Marken says.

Failure to solve the problem would be a significant loss in economic opportunity for the country, she says. After all, even with bloating costs, lifetime earnings are significantly greater for students who end their studies clutching a degree.

Laws of Attraction

Retaining students has become vital for colleges as well. As the number of traditional college-aged students has fallen into decline, some schools have even begun to wonder whether they can keep the doors open. For regional schools, it’s been particularly pronounced. With enrollment numbers down, schools may be eager to prevent the students they have from giving up.

Understanding why people leave is critical to keeping enrollment figures up, Marken argues. By investigating “stopping out,” the Gallup researchers were trying to comprehend whether colleges will continue to lose more students — and whether the “some college, no degree” population will continue to grow.

Based on this research, Marken thinks it will.

What about solutions? A lot of the money spent by institutions has been very much focused on providing support during moments of crisis, Marken says. That’s important, but less money has been spent “upstream,” helping students understand how they can also be more resilient within college, a necessarily complicated time in their lives.

It is very important that students get resources to build some resilience, so that they can bounce back from challenges experienced within day-to-day life in a way that does not cause them to potentially leave their program, Marken says. That means equipping students to feel connected to their community, assisting them to build a network and find their niche, which can help reduce loneliness. For example: offering networking opportunities and extracurricular activities that really are individualized to students.

Redirecting some money there, she says, could more proactively tackle the problem.

But in the meantime, the trend is disquieting.

“I'm really deeply concerned about the ‘some college, no degree’ population growth in the U.S.,” Marken concludes, adding, “I think it's a condemnation of our postsecondary education system, that we have this many learners who stopped out temporarily.”

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