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College students say emotional stress, mental health and the cost of tuition are the greatest challenges to completing their education.

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Around one third of students enrolled in a postsecondary program have considered stopping their coursework in the past six months, according to an April 17 report from Gallup and the Lumina Foundation.

The primary concern among students is emotional stress (54 percent), followed by personal mental health reasons (43 percent) and cost of higher education (31 percent).

The new report re-emphasizes the role student mental health and financial wellness plays into student enrollment, persistence and graduation rates. Survey data also highlights the importance of financial aid in keeping at-risk learners enrolled and a greater need for transparency around the cost of higher education.


The Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2024 study used web surveys to poll U.S. adults aged 18 to 59 who have a high school degree or equivalent and have not yet completed a postsecondary degree. The survey was conducted in fall 2023.

Among respondents, 6,015 were current students, 5,012 were adults who had previously enrolled and then stopped out, and 2,943 had never enrolled in an education program beyond high school.

Understanding stop outs. Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics found, among adults who were high school freshmen in 2009, 40 percent of those who enrolled in college did not earn a degree or credential within eight years of finishing high school.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data from 2023 found 40.4 million Americans have completed some college but have not earned a credential.

The Lumina/Gallup data is on-trend with other national studies looking at stop-out risks.

A smaller sample from student loan provider Sallie Mae found one-quarter of students have seriously thought about leaving school or are at risk of dismissal from their institution, and an additional 12 percent have considered leaving, but not too seriously. 

Sallie Mae respondents, similarly, pointed to financial challenges (30 percent), motivation or life changes (24 percent) and mental health challenges (18 percent) as the greatest threats to their enrollment status.

A January survey from ed-tech provider Anthology found, among current college students, their greatest challenge while in school was feeling overwhelmed or anxious about their academic workload or expectations (44 percent) and managing mental health and wellness (41 percent). Debt and financial stress impacted around two in 10 students.

Gallup and Lumina’s study revealed bachelor’s degree seekers are most likely to point to cost as a reason they’d stop out (39 percent), compared to those pursuing an associate degree (31 percent), certificate (22 percent) or industry certificate (21 percent).

Across racial and ethnic groups, Black (40 percent) and Hispanic learners (42 percent) are most likely to consider withdrawing from their programs. Emotional stress, mental health reasons and cost of degree are the three greatest concerns for these two groups, as well.

Financial support needed. Among those who thought about stopping out, financial aid is critical to their continuation in higher education.

Eighty-four percent of at-risk students say financial aid is very or moderately important, 3 percentage points greater than respondents in 2022 and 6 percentage points higher than in 2021.

At-risk adult learners ages 26 to 35 (86 percent), Black (83 percent) and Hispanic learners (85 percent) are most likely to rank financial aid as very or moderately important to their decision to stay enrolled.

Similarly, financial aid is very important to students at risk of dropping out pursuing a bachelor’s (68 percent) or associate (62 percent) degree.

So what? While most studies identified mental health and concerns about finances as separate reasons a student might stop out, other research points to a relationship between students’ financial need and their emotional stability.

A 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed found students who receive financial aid are more likely to say their mental health is poor or fair (51 percent), compared to students who are not on financial aid (43 percent).

Students who experience financial challenges also say they have difficulty concentrating on academics because of their finances, according to a 2023 report by Trellis Research.

Higher education leaders should consider how financial well-being ties into a students’ persistence and ability to learn, as well as how financial literacy and stability within college can promote students’ success after graduation.

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