A new report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation on currently enrolled students and those who have stopped out shows they are continuing to face setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic. One-third of the more than 5,000 students polled who are currently seeking bachelor’s or associate’s degrees say they are struggling to remain enrolled in their colleges and universities, with the majority citing emotional stress as a reason for considering pausing their studies.
But according to the 2022 State of Higher Education study, done for the first time since 2020, there are opportunities for institutions of higher education to not only retain students but bring aboard adults who have never been enrolled in a certificate or degree program and bring back those who have left college altogether.
A stunning 85% of students who decided to stop out in the past two years said they are hoping to get back on campus. In addition, the majority of current students who are toying with the idea of stopping out say they value a postsecondary education and understand its impact on helping them gain critical workforce skills and better earnings long term. Almost all of them say just one credential has the power to help them land that perfect job.
But the survey shows, colleges and universities must do more to meet their needs, especially when it comes to addressing their stress levels.
“While a growing mental health crisis challenged institutions prior to the pandemic, feelings of isolation and academic difficulties caused by the pandemic have exacerbated mental health struggles nationally,” authors wrote in the report. “Students are still struggling with their wellbeing, and it is posing a significant risk to their ability to complete degrees.”
The two top reasons for students considering a pause might be a surprise, especially given the severity of the pandemic and its financial impacts.
Emotional stress was No. 1 at 76%, and that has jumped nearly 40% since 2020. Course difficulty was No. 2, cited by more than a third of those in pursuit of degrees. Although cost has been a significant consideration for students and families, it was only cited by 36% of bachelor’s degree-seekers. COVID-19 remains a factor, but similarly dropped to around a third on survey responses. Childcare concerns decreased by half to just 12%. And few of the respondents seemed to devalue academics in their consideration for stopping out: low-quality education (14%), value of credential (12%) and course relevancy to careers (11%).
Students impacted the most by the fallout of the pandemic have been those from specific demographic groups—Native Americans, Asians, Blacks, Hispanics and multiracial individuals—with as many as 50% saying it has been difficult to remain enrolled. Students whose families earn less than $24,000 per year also have been severely impacted, with 45% considering leaving higher ed, at least temporarily.
Cost is a major barrier for adults who would like to get back into the system or make their first foray into higher education. More than half see tuition and fees as an obstacle, and that includes those who have incomes above $200,000. The concern over tuition costs is about 13% higher than family responsibilities and 25% higher than work conflicts, according to Gallup’s poll of 5,000 adults.
Because of cost and time considerations, most prospective students and those who have stopped out say they are looking at two-year paths or shorter-term options—associate’s degrees, certificates and industry certifications over bachelor’s degrees (12%). So there may be big opportunities for community colleges that have struggled with enrollments to position themselves for this group of learners.