The 3 factors holding at-risk students back from graduating

Students hailing from college-educated (18%), middle-income (18%) and high-income (16%) families were disproportionately less privy to consider stopping out or were at risk of dismissal. 

Nearly a quarter of today’s undergraduate students have seriously considered leaving school or were nearly dismissed, according to a new Sallie Mae study conducted by Ipsos. Three clues can help higher education leaders discover what strategies they can prioritize to increase their institutions’ completion rates and assist their at-risk students.

Of the 24% of respondents identified as at-risk students, financial challenges (30%), motivation (24%) and mental health (18%) were the most frequently cited impediments to their college success. First-generation (41%), lower-income (33%) and minority Black and Hispanic (31%) students were the most likely to be considered at risk. These findings correlate heavily with last year’s findings from the Lumina Foundation.

On the other hand, students hailing from college-educated (18%), middle-income (18%) and high-income (16%) families were disproportionately less likely to consider stopping out or be at risk of dismissal.

Ipsos conducted the poll on behalf of Sallie Mae between June 2 and June 26, 2023, surveying over 1,020 two- and four-year students aged between 18 and 30.Here’s a breakdown of how affordability, motivation and mental health significantly impact at-risk students compared to those on track to graduate.


At-risk students are most likely to have a job, struggle with expenses and be less informed about finances before entering college.

Specifically, only a quarter of at-risk students had planned out paying for all four years of college before entering; meanwhile, nearly half (46%) of on-track students were prepared. While students’ sources for money weren’t specified, more than half of at-risk students work more than 20 hours a week, whereas only a quarter of on-track students do.

Despite working more, over half of the students who were liable to stop out struggled to pay the cost of tuition and afford books, living costs and food.

While scholarships are an excellent way to help students focus on their studies, they might not be accessible to those most in need. For example, only 32% of first-generation students discussed scholarships with their families before college, whereas 71% of students in college-educated households did so. These issues persisted after enrollment: 42% of at-risk students give fair or poor ratings to the financial support they receive while at school, including scholarships and financial advising.

The issue of affordability is so intense that 57% of the students at risk of not completing come from low–income households.

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Undergraduates on the verge of leaving also lack the vision of what a college education can do for them. Nearly 90% or more of on-track students agree a college degree opens up opportunities, will help them obtain their dream job or at least lead to a better job. On the other hand, 78% or less of at-risk students believe this.

Students’ lack of exposure while in high school exacerbates this issue. A third of at-risk students didn’t decide to pursue college until their junior or senior years, while most on-track students always had higher education in mind. Similarly, more than three-quarters (73%) of on-track students started college on a career track, 17 percentage points more than at-risk students.

“We need to support early college planning, especially for first-generation students and those from underserved communities,” Nic Jafarieh, executive vice president of Sallie Mae, said in a statement. “Developing programs and resources to keep students on track while they are in school, simplifying the college transfer process, meaningfully expanding Pell Grants and connecting more students to scholarships can also help boost college completion.”

Mental health

A large disparity exists between the mental health of students on the verge of stopping out and those on track. Specifically, only 31% of at-risk students say their mental health is excellent, whereas 61% of the latter say the same.

While aspects of one’s mental health can be strengthened through diet, exercise and other methods, 58% of first-generation students said they struggle with prioritizing such activities.

“While facing these challenges, unfortunately, mental health is taking a back seat for many students, particularly those who may not have the same support systems to help guide them through this new phase in their academic careers,” said Jennifer Berg, vice president of Ipsos.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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