A new survey report from the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education study shows that the number of students considering leaving their post-secondary positions has remained about the same as last year and that emotional stress and personal mental health continue to top the list of drivers, just ahead of cost. The survey also showed that Black and Hispanic students are more likely than their White peers to report they have considered leaving school (Hispanic (42%) and Black (40%) compared to White (31%)). 

Stephanie Marken, the senior partner of Gallup's education division and author of the report, says the findings within the more than 14,000-person survey are particularly instructive for colleges and universities keeping a watchful eye on both overall retention and efforts to increase enrollment for underrepresented groups.

“One of the most interesting findings from my perspective is that people are about as likely as they were last year to consider stopping out in general, about 1 in 3,” said Marken, referring to data in the 2023 Lumina-Gallup survey.  The report notes that postsecondary enrollment, although up slightly due to increases for community college and short-term credential programs, have been steadily declining for the past four years. The fact that the number of those considering stopping out has also remained steady, indicates initial losses due to the pandemic may be more of a trend than a disruption.   

“This is alarming on a number of levels,” said Marken. “We know that from a social mobility perspective, from an economic perspective, people who complete a college degree are far more likely to be thriving in their lives. Whether it’s their career, their financial future, or their general wellbeing. The group that is even more disadvantaged is the “some college, no degree” cohort (those who stop out and never come back) who have huge amounts of student loans and nothing to show for it.” 

The report finds that consideration (of leaving) among Blacks and Hispanics has improved slightly but is still higher than among their White peers.  Marken sees the losses among this group as even more problematic when considering the outsized gain disadvantaged groups, including women, receive from a college degree.  

“We know that from a social mobility perspective, from an economic perspective, people who complete a college degree are far more likely to be thriving in their lives.“

“When we think about people who have been historically marginalized in our workplaces, in our communities, in our institutions, as Black and Hispanic individuals have been, we see that the lift those individuals experience is significant when it comes to receiving a college education,” she said.  “They enter the workplace in a very different situation from a pay perspective, even more so than their white peers.”  

Marken says the consistency among all racial/ethnic groups about the primary reasons for considering leaving school (emotional stress, mental health) is particularly concerning. 

“The fact that emotional stress and personal mental health are universal reasons (for consideration of leaving) and have remained as high as they are is a good reminder that all students are struggling and the core foundational need to stay enrolled is to have a strong sense of wellbeing,” she said. “We know that for Black and Hispanic students, because more of them are considering stopping out, it’s a really high need within those communities.”  

The recent survey is the latest in a series within the Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education study.  Begun in 2020, the research first looked at the learning experiences of enrolled students amidst the pandemic but expanded to include non-enrolled individuals or those who have left college in an effort to understand what drove them to opt-out or stop out.  Marken says learning more about these dynamics will help colleges and universities better understand how to get them back. 

“This is a good reminder that the core foundational need to stay enrolled is to have a strong sense of wellbeing.”

The latest report surveyed 6,015 currently enrolled students, about 5,012 Us adults who were previously enrolled in an education program after high school but had not completed a degree, and 3,005 adults who never enrolled in higher education.  The survey showed that about six in 10 Black and Hispanic unenrolled U.S. adults report they have considered enrolling in the past two years and that Certificate and Associate programs are most attractive to Black and Hispanic Americans.  

Marken sees this as good news and tracks it to 2019 Gallup research that showed that 66% of Hispanics and 65% of Blacks said that a college education was very important compared to just 44% of Whites.  

“All of this research is really aimed at figuring out how do we keep more of these individuals within higher education – those who want to be in higher ed and who perceive it to be a highly valuable experience -- so they don’t stop out temporarily or permanently.”