What causes students to drop out of college? Is it mental health concerns, finances, social pressures, health concerns, keeping up with coursework, the demands of family and work, or a combination?
Suspecting that personal and academic factors play a large role, researchers at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) spoke with former students to identify specific reasons many are leaving the university, either temporarily or permanently.
Searching for insight that could lead to new policies to help prevent students from dropping out and increase their odds of success, the researchers reached out to 14,000 former undergraduates who disenrolled either permanently or temporarily between 2009-2015. Personal interviews and focus groups were conducted with 549 former students from Spring 2015 through Fall 2016.
“It is our hope Sacramento State uses the captured sentiment, voices, and suggestions of student participants to improve degree completion, particularly among the most vulnerable students,” said the report, co-authored by Dr. Carlos Nevarez, Ph.D., and doctoral candidate Katrina Pimentel. “Illuminating Personal Factors Contributing to the Trajectory of Student Dropouts and Stopouts” was published in Volume 6.1 of the Journal of Transformative Leadership and Policy Studies.
The first of two reports from the study examined the students’ mental health, economic, social, and health concerns. The second report focuses on the academic factors leading to student dropout and stopout.
Nearly half of the students (47%) indicated that they almost always to frequently felt overwhelmed, which may be attributed to not having the correct information or guidance to help them prepare for college. Such students rarely took advantage of support services available on campus, perhaps because they didn’t know about them.
Twenty percent of the students said that they frequently or almost always worried about their mental health, with 21 percent occasionally worried. Estimates on the prevalence of mental health issues on college campuses are as high as 30 percent. The authors recommended taking steps to reduce the stigma of seeking care for mental health issues and scaling up mental health related services.
Depression, and to a lesser degree suicide, also need to be addressed with efforts to make students aware of counseling and wellness services, and by training faculty and staff to recognize the warning signs.
While the majority of study participants were neutral to very satisfied with their financial aid, 14 percent did have enough trouble receiving sufficient aid that they were unable to cover their living expenses and tuition. Notably, 42 percent of the students reported that their jobs interfered with their studies, making it difficult for them to stay on track academically. Offering more courses in the evenings and on weekends, or online, as well as child care, were recommended, as was encouraging faculty to offer working students more flexibility in meeting class requirements.
Loneliness and other concerns about their social life were less of a problem for the students, but more than half (58%) admitted worrying about family issues that made it difficult to concentrate on their studies. The majority of study participants said they never or rarely used alcohol or drugs, which could be attributed to their age or the university’s strict policies.
The authors said they recognize Sacramento State has made deliberate efforts to provide effective mental health services to students. This report confirms the need to continue extending campus-wide efforts to support students in distress. This study makes it clear the primary reason students are dropping out and stopping out. It is not for academic reasons—it has to do with students’ mental/emotional health, said Dr. Nevarez.
The full report is available at www.csus.edu/edd, under the JTLPS Journal tab.