Why Students Are Leaving University During Covid

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Students cited emotional stress, health issues and financial worries as some of the biggest barriers to staying in college during the pandemic, according to a new report from a survey by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup.

Even among students who persisted, more than a third of those seeking a bachelor’s degree and 40% of those seeking an associate’s degree said it was difficult to stay enrolled in the 2021-22 academic year.

The study, conducted last fall, expanded a 2020 Lumina/Gallup survey that explored student concerns about the move from in-person to remote learning. The number of students who considered dropping out of college in 2021 remained about the same as in 2020.

As undergraduate enrollment has fallen by about 8% during the pandemic, many colleges across the country have stepped up recruitment efforts and tried to help former students who never graduated get back on track. The recruitment of adult learners, ie students over the age of 25, has become a priority for many institutions. But the colleges have faced a series of obstacles.

More than half of respondents who were not enrolled in college said the cost of tuition was a reason for not continuing their education. This group included people who signed up before or during Covid and dropped out, as well as those who never signed up.

Of those who were not registered, more than a third said family responsibilities, such as childcare and elder care, were a barrier. A quarter cited labor disputes. A smaller proportion said they saw no value in getting more education.

People who never enrolled in college were more likely than people who had dropped out to say health concerns – either fear of contracting Covid or concerns unrelated to Covid – were a barrier.

Among college students, students of color — including multiracial and Native American, Alaska Native, and Hawaiian students — were the most likely to report that it was difficult to stay on track. Among multiracial students pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, 47% at each level said it was difficult or very difficult to stay enrolled in fall 2021. However, while the pandemic may have widened gaps in ‘listing, such inequalities have long preceded the past two years.

The report also notes that 45% of students from households earning less than $24,000 per year found it difficult or very difficult to stay enrolled, compared to 28% for households earning $240,000 or more per year.

Emotional stress was by far the biggest reason students considered withdrawing in 2021, underscoring concerns about student mental health. More than 70% of students who thought about leaving college in the six months before the survey cited emotional stress as the most important reason, according to the report.

The pandemic and the cost of attendance were the other most common answers, at 34% and 31%, respectively.

Yet a large number of adults still see college as a value. About 61% of those currently enrolled see higher education as something that will help them pursue a more fulfilling career, and 60% believe a degree will help them earn more money. Asked about the specific factors that kept them in college last fall, about half of enrolled students cited financial aid and half cited confidence in the value of their education.

There is also hope for students who ended up withdrawing during the pandemic: 85% said they were considering returning to class.

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