Editor's Note: The research below was conducted in partnership between the Lumina Foundation and Gallup.
About a third (32%) of currently enrolled students pursuing a bachelor's degree report they have considered withdrawing from their program for a semester or more in the past six months. A slightly higher percentage of students pursuing their associate degree, 41%, report they have considered stopping out in the past six months. These are similar to 2020 levels when 33% of bachelor's degree students reported they had considered stopping out and 38% of associate degree students said the same.
Among all racial and ethnic groups, multiracial students are the most likely to report they have considered stopping out. About half of those pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree who identify as multiracial report they have considered stopping out in the past six months (55% and 48%, respectively).
Results for the 2021 Lumina-Gallup State of Higher Education Study are based on web surveys conducted Oct. 19-Nov. 22, 2021, with a non-probability sample of U.S. adults aged 18-59 who have earned a high school diploma or degree but had not completed an associate or bachelor's degree. The sample included 5,215 students currently pursuing an associate or bachelor's degree. Read more about the research.
Emotional Stress Most Common Reasons Students Consider Withdrawing
Among those who considered stopping out of coursework, the most common reason was emotional stress. Seventy-six percent of those pursuing a bachelor's degree who have considered stopping out report they did so because of emotional stress they were experiencing. A similar percentage, 63%, of associate degree students say the same. These represent significant changes from 2020 when 42% of bachelor's degree students and 24% of associate degree students considering stopping out reported they did so due to emotional stress.
COVID-19, cost of attendance and coursework difficulty were the three next-most-often reported reasons students considered stopping out; however, COVID-19-related reasons declined significantly from 2020 for bachelor's degree students. Mentions of coursework difficulty increased significantly from 2020 to 2021 -- 17 percentage points for those pursuing a bachelor's degree and 10 points for those pursuing an associate degree.
Declining enrollments represent a significant challenge to higher education institutions, particularly in smaller institutions that rely heavily upon enrollment to remain open. Students who stop out of higher education are also worse off than when they entered, with many carrying high debt levels without the benefit of a higher-earning degree. As such, understanding the drivers of stopping out of higher education has never been more important. The surge in mentions of emotional stress and coursework difficulty as reasons students have considered stopping out is likely a reflection of the impact of COVID-19 on college campuses nationally.
For nearly two years, students have battled feelings of isolation. Many have struggled with their coursework due to these mental health challenges and other issues related to openings, closures and emergency remote learning. The two issues -- academic challenge and mental health -- are highly related as coursework challenges can increase feelings of stress, and stress can make concentrating on schoolwork and studying even more difficult. While higher education institutions have been battling a growing mental health crisis for the past decade, it is clear that the pandemic has exacerbated an already critical issue, and the implications are devastating for students, their families and their institutions. It is more important than ever that students invest in high-quality mental health and academic support programming to serve as interventions to the growing enrollment challenges facing schools and their students nationally.
Read more about results from the most recent Lumina-Gallup 2021 State of Higher Education Study.