Emotional stress remains one of the biggest challenges to keeping students enrolled

A new report found that “emotional distress” remains one of the top reasons students consider “quitting” or temporarily retiring from higher education, highlighting an ongoing problem for colleges trying to keep students enrolled and academically to stay on course.

Additionally, students enrolled in associate’s and undergraduate programs are just as likely to consider dropping out in 2022 as they are in 2021, despite many colleges “returning to normal” and easing pandemic precautions.

The report was produced by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation and was based on their 2022 State of Higher Education study, which distributed online surveys to 12,015 US adults between the ages of 18 and 59.

Respondents included current students, recent graduates, those who never graduated from college, and those who never enrolled. The data collected was then adjusted to fit national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, and region using weighting targets based on the latest American Community Survey figures for the US adult population.

A similar report by Gallup and Lumina in 2021 also found college students struggled with emotional distress.

Officials at the Lumina Foundation said they hoped their work would highlight the important role wellbeing and mental health resources play on campus, especially as many college leaders fret about the drop in enrollment.

According to the report, forty-one percent of students enrolled in a college program said they had considered dropping out of college in the past six months. 55 percent of the students who had considered dropping out cited emotional stress as the reason, including 69 percent of the undergraduate students.

When asked what emotional distress means to them, many students said college work can be overwhelming, especially when academic demands stack up on work and care responsibilities or issues in their personal relationships. Some students specifically mentioned depression and anxiety. Others said concerns about being able to pay for college led to emotional distress.

“Among college students who had considered quitting, emotional stress as a reason increased dramatically between the 2020 and 2021 pandemic years,” the report said. “Although Covid-19 has now fallen sharply as a reason for dropping out, students are only slightly less likely to cite emotional distress as a reason for dropping out of coursework.”

This year’s study allowed students to select “personal mental health reasons” as a factor affecting their ability to stay in college. This option was the second most frequently chosen reason, next to emotional stress. The first two “far outperformed the second most-chosen reasons, including program cost and difficulty of coursework,” according to the report.

According to the study, 40 percent of all students and 48 percent of bachelor’s students “often” experience emotional stress. Across all students, different groups experienced disproportionate levels of stress: nearly half of the women reported doing it frequently, compared to 30 percent of the men.

About half of all college students and 66 percent of undergraduate students who said their families were poor and that they often struggled to pay monthly bills said they often experienced emotional distress. In contrast, 38 percent of students from more financially secure socioeconomic groups said the same. There were also differences between race and age.

“There’s an intersectionality between all of these things, and so the stress that students feel is a result of who the students of today are,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of impact and planning at the Lumina Foundation. “They work, they feel discriminated against on campus, they have children of their own… and worry about money and then you know, some more worries about Covid.”

Brown said colleges should train faculty and staff to identify students who are struggling and direct them to appropriate resources.

To support student mental health, colleges must also support the well-being of faculty and staff, said Zainab Okolo, Lumina Foundation strategy officer.

Okolo identified several indicators of progress that she would like to see in the near future: politicians adding mental health funds to their budgets, administrators adding wellbeing to strategic plans, and students advocating for their needs.

Institutions must also set specific goals for progress on campus and in the classroom, Okolo said.

“Institutions must be prepared not only to arm their faculty and their staff and their students to identify a crisis, they must arm their faculty, staff and students to identify mental health,” Okolo said. “How about when your campus thrives?”

If you are in a crisis and would like to speak to someone you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both services are free, confidential and available 24/7. 7.