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Addressing Student Persistence on the Precipice of an Economic Downturn

Woman wearing a medical mask while evaluating financial market data on a large screen

As we approach a possible downturn in the economy, with high inflation and unemployment on the horizon, can institutions of higher education expect similar levels of enrollment growth compared to previous recessions?

Although there is little agreement on when the U.S. will enter a recession, more than 40% of adults report concern about an impending recession and confidence in the overall U.S. economy has declined. Many Americans already believe the country is in a recession. Last month, we started the conversation about the economy’s impact on student persistence. Let’s further explore the relationship between the economy and student enrollment.

Will A Recession Cause Enrollment Growth in 2022?

During previous times of economic struggle, colleges and universities experienced an uptick in student enrollment. When wages are cut or jobs are lost, those impacted often return to their education in an attempt to increase employment opportunities. During the recession of 2008, college student enrollment jumped by nearly 16% with mostly non-traditional adult learners looking to complete or pursue a degree. When people experience declines in salary or loss of job altogether, they invest in their education and either return to, or begin, undergraduate or graduate studies with the hope that more education will equate to more opportunities.

Post-pandemic, the challenge is that an economic recession isn’t the only factor in a student’s ability to invest or persist in college. The pandemic caused new issues for students of all ages looking to return to college to improve their personal economic outlook. We have watched the drivers of student persistence shift over recent years to include financial distress and student wellness, but most colleges and universities haven’t considered these concerns in light of a possible recession. Without addressing these issues, a recession will not automatically boost enrollment and persistence.

Student Persistence and the Pandemic

As many as 6,000 students dropout of college each day, representing a loss of $41 billion in tuition revenue each year. Not to mention the drag that unpaid student loans have on the economy, and more importantly students.

The impacts on college completion go well beyond soaring costs and academics. Most institutions are not prepared for the enrollment boost that historically comes with an economic downturn, with a group of students who have significantly higher mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, alongside insecurities around food and housing.

Young adults experienced an alarming increase in mental health disorders during the pandemic, specifically due to major changes in how they live, work, study, and interact with others. Those challenges are not going away with a “return to normal.” Because people have been isolated — spending more time at home alone, distanced from others, socializing less, disappearing into their screens — there has been an increase in depression and anxiety that will accompany students to our campuses.

Institutions will need to address the challenges that are the greatest barriers to student persistence, namely:

  • a sense of belonging,

  • financial concerns, and

  • mental health issues.

If an economic recession occurs, and people choose to return to (or begin) college, they will enroll with far more challenges than just financial ones. Students will no longer arrive on campus with possibly one barrier to persistence; they will arrive with a combination of challenges on top of newly experienced salary reductions or job loss. Colleges and universities must be prepared to increase more than just financial aid award packages if they want to truly support student persistence.

It’s Time to Prepare — Beyond Financial Assistance

While institutions may welcome an influx of students to overcome the enrollment decline of the pandemic, most are not prepared to support the many needs of students that go beyond financial aid packages. Students today experience challenges unlike any before — financial instability specifically related to food and housing, and mental health concerns that we historically haven’t been prepared to manage.

The time is now to think about how you are addressing these challenges on your own campus, before a recession hits:

  • Build a student success plan, the same way you would for other populations of students. When we recognize that traditionally underserved student populations face more challenges, or that first-generation students need a certain level of support to understand the college-going process, we begin to implement initiatives to support their success. Now is no different, except you have time to prepare in advance for the increase in student enrollment that may be heading your way. Be proactive, not reactive, and build a plan that accounts for the many barriers today’s students face.

  • Identify ways in which you can use the tools available to both you and your students, such as AI and SMS, to begin supporting students and their transition to your campus. Although the pandemic had a negative effect on screen time, use that for positive outcomes by connecting to students through their devices.

  • Work across campus partners to implement solutions so that everyone benefits from the strategies you put in place. Use the technology you have, or identify the right tech partner, to connect students to the campus community and its resources.

By leveraging these strategies, institutions will be better positioned to support students both now and if/when a recession hits. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of the crisis to identify solutions. Instead, be proactive as you prepare for students returning to campus and those who may need to invest in you in the future.

By Carolina Recchi

Co-Founder and CEO at EdSights

Carolina moved to the US from Italy at 17 for college. As a first-generation US college student she experienced first-hand the hurdles of navigating higher education. Not knowing who to turn to for help as a student, she decided to build a technology that helps all students navigate college. Today, EdSights works with ~100 institutions and Carolina was named by Forbes one of the most influential people in education.



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