A new report found that “emotional stress” remains a top reason that students consider “stopping out,” or temporarily withdrawing from higher education, highlighting a persistent issue for colleges seeking to keep students enrolled and on track academically.

Moreover, students enrolled in associate and bachelor’s programs were just as likely to consider stopping out in 2022 as they were in 2021, despite many colleges “returning to normal” and easing pandemic precautions.

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

Respondents included current students, graduates, people who never finished college, and people who never enrolled. The data collected was then adjusted to match national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, and region, using weighting targets based on the most recent American Community Survey figures for the U.S. adult population.

A similar report conducted by Gallup and Lumina in 2021 also found that students were struggling with emotional stress.

Lumina Foundation officials said they hoped their work would emphasize the important role that well-being and mental-health resources play on campuses, especially as many college leaders fret over enrollment declines.

Forty-one percent of students enrolled in a higher-education program said they had considered stopping out in the past six months, according to the report. Among students who had considered stopping out, 55 percent gave emotional stress as a reason, including 69 percent of students pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

When asked what emotional stress meant to them, many students said that coursework could be overwhelming, particularly when academic demands piled on top of work and caregiving responsibilities or issues in their personal relationships. Some students mentioned depression and anxiety specifically. Others said concerns about the ability to pay for college brought on emotional stress.

“Among students who had considered stopping out, emotional stress surged dramatically as a reason between the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021,” the report said. “However, though Covid-19 has now fallen sharply as a reason for stopping out, there has only been a modest decrease in students’ likelihood to cite emotional stress as the reason they have considered stopping their 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 commonly selected reason, next to emotional stress. The top two “far exceeded the next most commonly selected reasons, including program cost and difficulty of coursework,” the report said.

Forty percent of all students, and 48 percent of bachelor’s students, “frequently” experience emotional stress, the study found. Among all students, different groups disproportionately experienced distress: Close to half of women said they frequently did, compared with 30 percent of men.

About half of all students, and 66 percent of bachelor’s students, who said that their family was poor and that they often struggled to pay monthly bills reported frequently experiencing emotional stress. 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 are feeling is a result of who today’s students are,” said Courtney Brown, the vice president of impact and planning for Lumina Foundation. “They are working, they are feeling discriminated against on campuses, they have children of their own … and worries about money and then you know, still some worries about Covid.”

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

In order to promote mental health for students, colleges need to also support the well-being of faculty and staff, said Zainab Okolo, a strategy officer at Lumina Foundation.

Okolo identified several indicators of progress that she’d like to see in the near term: policymakers putting funding toward mental health in their budgets, administrators adding well-being to strategic plans, and students advocating for their needs.

Institutions also need to identify concrete goals for progress on campus and in classrooms, Okolo said.

“Institutions have to be ready to not only be able to equip their faculty and their staff and their students to identify a crisis, they have to equip the faculty, staff and students to identify mental health,” Okolo said. “What does it look like when their campus is flourishing?”

If you are in crisis and would like to talk 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.

Julian Roberts-Grmela

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