Even with pandemic-era restrictions lifted and concerns about COVID-19 receding, students in associate or bachelor’s degree programs are no less likely than they were in 2021 to have considered stopping their coursework at least temporarily before completing it. “Emotional stress” remains by far their most commonly cited reason for thinking of “stopping out,” or withdrawing from their program for at least one term.
No Slowing in the Rate of Students Considering Stopping Out
About four in 10 students (41%) currently enrolled in a postsecondary education program say they have considered “stopping out” in the past six months, a slight rise from 2020 and 2021.
Associate degree students (44%) are more likely than bachelor’s degree students (36%) to say they have considered “stopping out” -- each figure representing a slight increase compared with the previous two years.
These findings are from the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2022 study, conducted Oct. 26-Nov. 17, 2022.
Researchers have long warned of a growing mental health crisis on U.S. college campuses. Students are increasingly likely to report problems with depression and anxiety, and demand for campus counseling services has risen past the capacity of many schools to keep up with it. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among students who had considered stopping out, emotional stress surged dramatically as a reason between the 2020 and 2021 surveys, with the first conducted in the early months of the pandemic. Though COVID-19 has now fallen sharply as a reason students are considering stopping out, there has been only a modest decrease in students’ likelihood to cite emotional stress.
Fourteen percent of students now say that COVID-19 is their reason for considering stopping out, down 19 percentage points from 2021. Meanwhile, a majority of students say emotional stress is the reason for these considerations (55%), down eight points from the peak in 2021.
For the first time, the study also included “personal mental health reasons” as a possible reason students might have considered stopping out. The item is second only to emotional stress among cited factors, with nearly half of students (47%) choosing it. Both reasons are given much more frequently as the next-most-commonly selected reasons, program cost (29%) and difficulty of coursework (21%).
Smaller percentages of students say they considered stopping out because inflation had made their education less affordable (22%), because of physical health reasons (17%), because they were no longer interested in continuing (14%) or because they did not believe their degree would help achieve personal goals (12%).
Bachelor’s students are significantly more likely than associate students to give mental health or financial reasons for considering stopping out. About seven in 10 bachelor’s students say emotional stress (69%) and about six in 10 say mental health reasons (59%) are reasons they considered stopping their coursework.
Four in 10 Students “Frequently” Experience Emotional Stress
The 2022 study also asked students for the first time how often they experience emotional stress in their program. Nearly nine in 10 students say they “frequently” (40%) or “occasionally” (46%) experience emotional stress.
Almost half of bachelor’s students (48%) say they feel such stress “frequently,” as do more than one-third of associate degree students (36%).
Emotional stress among students was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which isolated students at a time when social relationships are particularly important to their ability to manage the stress of college life.
But while COVID-19 has become less of a burden, emotional stress remains one for most students. And it takes a heavier toll on bachelor’s students, female students and those from low-income households.
For bachelor’s students, positive on-campus relationships can create a less stressful path through their education. The Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2022 study finds that there is a lower incidence of emotional stress among bachelor’s students who feel they have supportive, respectful relationships with faculty and peers. Such strategies for bolstering students’ support networks may be effective supplements or alternatives to traditional counseling services at four-year colleges.