You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

An aerial shot of students working in a common space

Community college students who experience mental health concerns are more likely to stop out compared to their peers who do not, according to new research.

SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

Community college students make up 41 percent of undergraduates and, among students who completed a degree in 2015–16, 49 percent have enrolled at a public two-year college in some capacity in the past 10 years, according to the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University.

A new working paper published by CCRC, “Challenges and Opportunity: An Examination of Barriers to Postsecondary Academic Success,” identifies how students’ time utilization, engagement with campus resources, and financial and mental well-being can impact academic persistence and educational attainment.

Researchers found mental health conditions were the greatest predictor of persistence and credit accumulation among students, with a negative correlation between conditions and attainment.

State of play: Community colleges serve a disproportionately high number of low-income, racially minoritized, first-generation, immigrant and adult learners compared to their four-year counterparts.

Despite being more diverse, equity gaps still exist in community college completion, particularly for low-income students and students of color.

Most interventions for community college students focus on students’ financial and academic needs to increase engagement and persistence, according to the report.

Similarly, fall 2023 data from EdSights found, among institution types, students at public two-year institutions report the highest stress levels for financial distress, despite being the most affordable across sectors.

The working paper researchers, Sade Bonilla from the University of Pennsylvania and Veronica Minaya from Columbia University, wanted to understand how first-time, low-income community college students persist based on their time utilization and engagement with campus resources as well as financial and mental health.

Methodology: Researchers surveyed 277 community college students at Hispanic-Serving Institutions and linked that data to college records. Students were first-time, low-income learners who enrolled full-time in the fall of 2022 looking to earn an associate degree.

The survey gauged students’ academic engagement, engagement with the institution, financial stressors and mental health while institutional records provided sociodemographic characteristics, prior academic preparation, academic records and financial aid.

Student characteristics: The study, in addition to highlighting trends in persistence, also identified trends among community college learners.

Comparing Data

In a 2023 Student Voice survey by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, 55 percent of students at two-year colleges reported spending 0 hours per week participating in extracurricular activities, and one-third spent between one to five hours in extracurriculars.

Thirty percent of two-year students surveyed said stress was negatively contributing to their ability to focus, learn and do well a great deal, which was a larger share than those at four-year institutions.

  • Students said they spent an average of 13.5 hours per week studying and preparing for class, and an average of six hours per week on campus attending class and participating in other campus-based activities. This is significantly lower than historic data among four-year college students (Students averaged 40 hours per week in 1961 and 7 hours in 2004 studying, and 16 hours per week in class in 1981 and 13 hours in 2004, according to the report).
  • A majority of participants said they worked, with 44 percent working full-time and 10 percent working part-time—averaging 13 hours per week worked.
  • The typical student said they engaged in four of eight campus-provided activities (advising on course selection and planning, new student orientation, advising on academic problems, faculty office hours, career assessment and counseling, academic support or tutoring, campus events, and career exploration programs). The most common activities were academic planning (80 percent) and new student orientation (64 percent), and least common were career exploration activities (33 percent) and campus events (35 percent).
  • Over one-third of students reported feelings of anxiety (38 percent) and depression (34 percent), which is on par with estimates for students at four-year institutions. One-quarter of students reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress.
  • Four in 10 students experienced some level of food insecurity and 60 percent of respondents had some level of housing insecurity.
  • After the first-year, 99 percent of respondents completed the first semester and 82 percent completed spring semester. Students earned an average of 14.8 credits earned out of 22 credits enrolled, showing a high level of withdrawing from or failing of courses.

Results: The study found financial and mental well-being and engagement with campus resources was not related to students’ fall-to-spring persistence; however, the number of hours a student spent on campus and working for pay were significantly related.

Students who spent more time on campus were more likely to persist, and those who held jobs were less likely to do so.

One notable finding was students who experience anxiety tended to spend more time on campus, but those experiencing depression were less likely to engage with campus resources. Despite this, students with anxiety had a slightly lower likelihood of persisting through the end of the spring term.

Students with elevated mental health concerns had diminished academic progress, as well.

For every extra hour students studied, they were more likely to complete an additional 0.18 credits, and an extra hour spent on campus had a similar positive association to earning credits.

So what: Based on the study’s findings, researchers recommend higher education leaders create targeted interventions to identify students’ mental health concerns and help them address these issues. Many community colleges are lacking in sufficient on-campus capacity to serve all of their leaners’ mental and physical health needs, so investing in wellness centers and resources for students to develop coping strategies can support academic success.

To promote engagement and student success, advising and student orientation can also serve as on-ramps because a majority of students participate in these activities.

Get more content like this directly to your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.

Next Story

Found In

More from Health & Wellness