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The Scary Truth About Student Financial and Mental Health

Part 3 in a 3 Part Series to Challenge You in the New Year

Blocks arranged with the word STRESS transitioning to WELLNESS

It’s time to wrap up this series with a serious conversation about the impact mental health and financial distress have on college student persistence. In Part One, we shared some of the ways EdSights is tackling the college completion crisis. In Part Two, we focused on the barriers to student persistence, how to reimagine the student experience and consider the whole student, and ways in which you could use AI, such as text messaging and chatbot, to provide better support.

In considering the whole student, we would be remiss if we didn’t spend additional time discussing the impact of mental health and financial distress on today’s college student.

The Student Experience Includes Financial and Mental Health Concerns

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in Reimagining the Student Experience, challenges colleges and universities to consider the whole student, especially the whole struggling student, before it’s too late. Colleges and universities can no longer limit themselves to offering a good education; they can no longer see themselves as separate from social service agencies; they must identify ways in which they can support all students beyond academic support; and they must connect students with much needed support for their whole life, not just their academic one.

The student experience includes the need to belong. Cultivating a community that develops a sense of belonging can not be thought of as a bonus to the student experience, but rather as the foundation for it. In the 2020 National Survey of Student Engagement, students who noted an intent to return to their college also reported higher scores in terms of their belonging. Colleges and universities that don’t focus on belonging as part of the student experience, and who don’t acknowledge the impact of financial stress and mental health on belonging, will see decreases in retention as a result.

The Scary Truth About Mental Health and Today’s College Student

If you haven’t considered the newer challenges students face, or changed how you view student retention, or rather, persistence, you will miss out on what your students truly need to persist and graduate. While Dr. Vincent Tinto’s decades-long theories on student persistence hold true, with academic engagement and sense of belonging remaining key indicators of persistence, financial distress and mental health contribute negatively to the student experience at alarming rates.

Numerous studies have shown that student mental health must become a priority for higher education. Students themselves report increases in anxiety and depression since the pandemic, however they haven’t seen an increase in campus support services on par with their rising levels of mental health concerns. Colleges and universities are simply not prepared to support the more than 60% of students experiencing mental distress, nor are they prepared to present that support in a way that reduces the stigma associated with seeking mental health resources.

With a staggering 65% of students reporting mental health concerns, depression and anxiety among college students is at its highest in 14 years.

Looking more specifically at what students report:

Those same students rate their colleges' support services for mental health at a C or lower.

In the spring of 2022, 3 out of 4 students pursuing a bachelor’s degree cited mental stress as the primary reason they considered taking a break from school. More recently, the Surgeon General called for college and university presidents to strengthen their mental health resources on campus and to use data to identify the resources students engage with most, thus informing the strategies institutions employ.

In our own Winter Break Wellness Check, which surveyed 1000 students at EdSights partners, almost 40% of students identified mental health as the reason they were struggling either academically or socially.

It is clear that mental health and well-being support on college campuses is key to a student’s ability to persist and graduate. Bottom line: if you don’t invest in student mental health and well-being at the level called for, you will find that nothing you do will make up for it.

Housing and Food Insecurity Create Significant Challenges

Financial distress has a significant impact on two other barriers - academic performance and sense of belonging - while also impacting mental health. In the latest Student Financial Wellness Survey:

  • More than half of respondents report uncertainty or anxiety about how they will pay for school and cover their personal expenses

  • 42% of students report food insecurity

  • 59% of respondents experienced food insecurity or housing insecurity in the previous twelve months, including 15% who experienced the most severe level of housing insecurity, homelessness.

In our own check-in with students in August 2022, over 70% of students indicated something besides tuition as their biggest financial concern. Other studies show that one in three college students face food insecurity, and over 40% of students have faced housing insecurity. In the most recent Hope Center Basic Needs survey, nearly three in five students experience basic needs insecurity and only 32% reported receiving emergency aid. Even more alarming is the 52% of students who never applied because they didn’t know emergency aid was available or how to apply for it. Moreover, students of color and low-income students are disproportionately impacted by food and housing insecurity with over 70% of minority racial and ethnic groups reporting basic needs insecurity versus 54% of white students.

It is impossible and, quite frankly, irresponsible to expect students in these situations to be academically successful or to build relationships on campus. Studies show that food and housing insecurity heavily contribute to lower grades and increased rates of depression and anxiety, all of which contribute to poor academic performance and little sense of belonging, thus causing higher dropout rates. In order to improve student success and drive student persistence, colleges and universities must address all of the student experience, including financial distress and mental health.

Intervene Yesterday. Intervene Today. Intervene Tomorrow.

Intervention initiatives, as opposed to early warning systems, demonstrate success in keeping students enrolled in college. The Center for Community College Student Engagement in Texas interviewed students four times over the course of their fall and spring semesters, providing key insights into the challenges students were facing. Most campuses don’t have the bandwidth for student interviews or focus groups, so need to consider other ways to reach students and intervene with effective solutions.

Solutions such as AI, chatbots, or other digital solutions are instrumental in improving the student experience and fostering a focus on the whole student. With an AI-powered chatbot who engages with students regularly throughout the semester, provides resources and recommendations to address student concerns, and consistently follows up with students via text, you have the ability to provide support to the students on your campuses who need it the most. You also have student engagement data to make adjustments to how often you check in, the resources students respond to most, or the resources students need that you don’t yet support.

What You Can Do and How EdSights Can Help

In The Chronicle’s Reimagining the Student Experience, there is clear understanding that colleges and universities don’t have the resources to provide every student with an individualized approach. However, they do have the ability to facilitate interactions between students and support services and create an environment that explicitly talks about the importance of making connections on campus.

At EdSights, we operationalize the four decades of student persistence research through our Adaptive AI Framework. This framework, which utilizes an institutionally-branded chatbot and SMS text messaging, is designed to identify and support those factors that lead to student persistence.

By using our Adaptive AI Framework, you can:

  • Check-in with students at key points throughout the semester. As your students are adjusting to life on campus, advancing through the semester, approaching midterms or finals, and preparing for the semester break, use text messaging to check in with students, see how they’re doing, and provide resources based on their responses.

  • Openly talk about your campus resources and explicitly drive students to your AI-powered chatbot as a resource. For our partners, students report the engagement with the chatbot as instrumental in their academic success and ability to connect with others on campus.

  • Use Adaptive AI in place of the resources you don’t have. AI allows you to check in with and offer support to students at scale while identifying students who may need additional one-on-one support. Use the behavioral data of your students engaging with AI, along with the collective intelligence across all EdSights partners, to identify those students needing immediate support and provide relevant resources the moment they need them.

We look forward to your partnership in tackling the college completion crisis together. Book a demo today to dive deeper. Or, join us for one of our weekly Office Hours webinars to learn more.


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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