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Mental Health is a Global Priority … It Must Become One for Higher Education

Motivation is at an all time low. We must reverse this trend.

World Mental Health Day was October 10. This year’s objective? Mental health and well-being must be a global priority. The pandemic, with its job displacements and lack of income and medical bills and too many demands with not enough resources, has created a mental health crisis worldwide. Reflecting on this as a crisis, acknowledging that few have been able to avoid these pandemic effects, it is clear that the effects of the pandemic on mental health extend to the nation’s college students and their ability to persist in their studies. Student mental health must become a priority for higher education if we are to see increases in persistence among our students.

Even prior to the pandemic the United States was facing a college completion crisis, with fewer than 60% of students who entered college completing a degree. The enrollment declines caused by the pandemic have not rebounded and, even as enrollment has started to return, the degree completion rate continues to suffer. As many as 6,000 students dropout of college each day due to financial distress, academic performance, sense of belonging on campus, and well-being. There is an undeniable relationship between the stresses of finances, academics, and lack of engagement and a student’s mental health. In fact, we might argue that financial concerns, academic challenges, and not feeling connected to campus have a bigger impact on mental health than mental health has on these other barriers to persistence.

The Higher Education Mental Health Crisis

Mental health concerns have increased rapidly on American campuses, with students reporting both increases in anxiety and depression and lack of mental health resources. Further, students expressing mental health concerns are twice as likely to leave the university. 28% of students report mental health challenges have hurt their academic performance more than 6 days in a four week time period, with 60% reporting they’ve needed mental health support over the past twelve months and 77% reporting they need help now. Only 21% of students strongly agree that they know where to go for mental health resources on their campus.

College students experienced an alarming increase in mental health concerns during the pandemic - anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts - mostly caused by significant changes to their daily lives and the ways in which they worked, studied, and interacted with others. A recent Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) study reinforced what we, at EdSights, already recognized as barriers to completion, with mental health remaining one of the top four alongside academic engagement, financial distress, and student engagement.

The Shift from Retention to Persistence

For decades, Dr. Vincent Tinto has been the leading voice on college student retention. In recent years, though, his research on student retention has shifted from how the university views retention to how students see persistence, or their motivation to persist. In a way, this is repositioning the student retention concept: from the institutional desire to increase (retain) the number of students who graduate from their institutions, to the student’s interest in completing their degree (persist) regardless of the college or university at which they’re enrolled. It is not only what the university can do to support students, but what students need to remain motivated and how institutions can build on this motivation.

The pandemic created a crushing blow to motivation. Those students with a strong sense of self-efficacy, who entered or returned to college pre-pandemic, were no match for the isolation and lack of connection to campus students felt during the pandemic. Those with a lower view of their ability to succeed were hit even harder. Those facing financial challenges, or who suffered academically during remote instruction, may feel the weight of these challenges in their return to campus. Now returning to campuses, effective support for these students must be available early and often in order to counteract the largest barriers to persistence:

  • Academic engagement

  • Financial distress

  • Wellness

  • Student engagement

But let’s return to an earlier sentiment: mental health is not only one of the top four barriers to persistence but is arguably also impacted by financial concerns, academic challenges, and a sense of belonging. If we can identify financial solutions, restore or create student’s sense of self-efficacy, and create a campus community to which students feel they belong, we may see an increase in the mental wellbeing of our students.

Financial Concerns and Mental Health

18 to 25 year olds experience mental health issues at higher rates than any other group, which is exasperated by increased financial uncertainty both during and after the pandemic. Students and families lost jobs; campuses closed and so did work study and other on-campus jobs; future earning potential has become questionable; and we have a potential economic downturn approaching. Lack of income creates both housing and food uncertainty, with three in five students experiencing housing insecurity and over half of students facing food insecurity.

Let’s think further about the relationship between financial distress, mental health, and choices students make. Students experience financial uncertainty - they (or a parent) lost a job during the pandemic and they have yet to recover from the lost income. Due to the loss in income, they have difficulty finding employment or other revenue sources that cover rent, utilities, food, and other basic necessities. The stress from lack of finances leads to depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders, which then leads to poor performance in many aspects of life, including school. The student has either (1) already dropped out due to finances, or (2) drops out now because they lack the motivation to continue.

70% of college students experience stress with regards to finances, leading to 32% who neglect their studies, 34% who experience a drop in GPA, 34% who drop a course, and over 50% who drop out altogether. There is a vicious cycle at play here, where lack of finances, housing or food insecurity, and an uncertain financial future lead to mental health issues and lack of well-being. In fact, 91% of students report that their financial concerns significantly impact their mental health. It isn’t that finances or student well-being exist independent from one another and stop a student’s persistence, but rather a causal relationship between the two, a double whammy that the student needs to overcome to succeed.

No Sense of Belonging Leads to Loneliness, Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mental Health Concerns

Sense of belonging among college students also took a significant hit during the pandemic. Disruptions to daily life, including the inability to see family and friends on a regular basis, created feelings of isolation and loneliness. The pandemic and subsequent campus closings eliminated the psychosocial experiences we know make a difference in college student success, and resulted in an increase in isolation, depression, and anxiety When college students feel like they belong, when they feel connected to their campus community, they experience less stress, anxiety, and loneliness. In fact, in comparison with other social experiences they may have, college students with a strong sense of belonging experience lower rates of mental health disorders.

Dr. Tinto identifies that “a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermines motivation to persist.” When two-thirds of college students report feeling lonely and isolated, and we know that the isolation students experience leads to depression, it is clear, again, that mental health and wellness does not exist in a vacuum but, rather, is heavily influenced by the other barriers to persistence.

Student Engagement Matters for Mental Health

Student engagement matters. But, as Dr. Tinto would share, it isn’t only the engagement itself that matters but, more importantly, the student’s perception of each engagement and how it drives their sense of belonging. It isn’t just that students need to engage, but that, when they do, they identify as part of the larger campus community - with other students, faculty, and administrators - and that being a member of that community matters.

The pandemic impacted the ability to engage, especially for first-year students expecting the traditional college experience, thus contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Further, as it relates to student wellbeing, if the student’s ability to engage with your campus community, or more specifically with mental health resources, is prohibited by rules and restrictions you may face challenges to increasing student wellbeing. If your campus is dedicated to student wellbeing, and fosters a culture among students, faculty, and staff that places value on a student’s well being, you may see increases in academic performance, sense of belonging, and persistence. Students, in order to persist, need to feel that they belong, that they matter. Investing in ways to address mental health concerns, while also increasing engagement, must become a focus for colleges and universities as more students return to campus.

Closing Thoughts

For anyone who has been following the mental health crisis on college campuses, or anyone who’s been paying attention to why their students persist, it is clear that mental health does not stand alone as a barrier to persistence. In many cases, it is a vicious cycle: a student experiences financial stressors, a lack of belonging, or a decrease in engagement with campus, thus experiencing academic challenges, leading to depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. What’s next? They don’t succeed. They don’t persist. They drop out with no clear path to move forward.

At EdSights, we are committed to student success. We are focused on student persistence. We are partners in helping colleges and universities identify paths to move forward. Our insights and solutions are powered by AI and SMS, and built on the decades-long framework of student retention and persistence. Mental health and student wellbeing, and the other barriers that impact wellbeing and persistence, can be improved through strategic, data-informed solutions that proactively provide students with the resources they need to overcome these barriers.

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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