Young people aged 16 through 26 (known as Gen Z’s) will soon inherit leadership positions in a world that is complex and challenged by global issues requiring knowledge, perspective and readiness. Yet the health and wellness of young people remains an underexplored policy area at a time when there is an alarming rise in mental, behavioral, and emotional health issues among teens and young adults. Higher education policies do not always adequately cover the problems that are occurring on college campuses – from bigotry and sexual assault to eating disorders, depression and suicide.
The Mary Christie Foundation provides thought leadership among key influencers where cross-disciplinary solutions can begin to emerge.
The number of young people reporting mental health issues has increased both on and off college campuses. This may be due to a combination of increased willingness to seek help driven by improved awareness and decreased stigma, improvements in psychopharmacology, and deteriorating mental wellbeing, including factors related to stress, such as academic or financial concerns. A study published in the Journal of American College Health showed the increasing rates of mental health diagnoses for a range conditions. Using National College Health Assessment data, the study found a significant increase in the diagnosis and treatment for eight of 12 mental health conditions examined between 2009 and 2015, with the largest increases seen in anxiety, depression, and panic attacks. Recent research published by the American Psychological Association observed that more than one-third of first-year university students in eight industrialized countries report symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder.
College counseling centers are being overwhelmed by the increasing demand. According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health’s 2016 report, college enrollment increased by 5% between 2009-2015, while the number of students seeking mental health services increased by 29.6% and the number of attended appointments by 38.4%. And while there is an increase in mental health service utilization, most students who would benefit from services are not receiving them. The 2018 2019 Healthy Minds Study found that only 43% of students with positive depression or anxiety screens received treatment in the past year.
College administrators are keenly aware of the increasing rates of mental health issues among their students and the consequences of letting them fall through the cracks while at school. Supporting students’ mental health is a critical priority and includes issues related to capacity of mental health services on campus, responding to crises, student success and retention, health and academic information privacy, and student safety. Administrators are increasingly concerned about student success and retention, which is often related to students’ mental health. A study published in the Journal of College Student Development demonstrated that students who receive counseling services on campus are more likely to remain enrolled in school.
To address the issue, experts suggest identifying mental health as a community problem that is shared by all members of an institution, educating and encouraging everyone in the community to recognize signs of student distress, and providing increased awareness about campus resources.
Anxiety: Anxiety is the most common mental health issue on college campuses. According to the latest National College Health Assessment, 27.4 percent of students reported having been diagnosed with anxiety in their lifetime. Thirty percent reported that anxiety had negatively impacted their academic performance over the previous year. And a recent study found that between 2009 and 2015, treatment and diagnosis of anxiety increased by 5.6 percent.
Depression: Depression remains a leading mental health issue. According to the National College Health Assessment, 22.3% of college students have been diagnosed or treated for depression in their lifetime. Twenty four percent of college students reported that depression had negatively impacted their academic performance over the previous year. 17.8% of respondents to this survey reported both depression and anxiety treatment. A 2016 study from the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA reported that incoming freshmen were more depressed than they had been in 30 years.
Stress: According to a study by the American Psychological Association, young adults in America (ages 18 to 33) are significantly more stressed than other age groups. Chronic stress can result in serious health problems including anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. Some research shows that it contributes to the development of depression, obesity, and heart disease. A study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety found that stress among college students was “strongly associated” with mental health diagnoses and suicide attempts. Academic pressure is certainly a leading cause of stress on college campuses, as is the financial burden of paying for school. Bigotry relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation likely play a large role in increased stress for young adults both on college campuses, and off. Recent research identified relationship stressors, students’ high expectations of themselves, lack of coping resources like time, sleep, and support, and loneliness as the most significant determinants of depressive symptoms for college students. Colleges are responding to increased stress among their students with new, innovative strategies including mindfulness and meditations classes, stress management programs and resilience training.
Eating Disorders: Eating disorders including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are characterized by serious and persistent disturbances in eating and weight control behavior and are associated with a wide range of negative physical, mental and social outcomes. Eating disorders often coexist with other mental health issues including depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders, and are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate.
Eating issues often begin or are exacerbated during transitional stages, making college students especially vulnerable to developing a disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 25% of college students have eating disorders, and according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 95% of individuals with an eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 25. A 2011 study found that at one college, eating disorders increased from 23 to 32% among females over a 13-year period. The 2019 Healthy Minds Study reported that 10% of students screened positive for an eating disorder, up from 5% in 2013.
Female student athletes are at particularly high risk for eating disorders. Some sport environments emphasize reducing body weight to enhance athletic performance, which may increase the risk of restrictive dieting, pathogenic weight control behavior, and disordered eating. Women athletes in “lean” sports, for which a low weight provides performance advantage, are at the highest risk for eating disorders. Athletes with eating disorders in these sports may be less likely to be identified, as disorder symptoms are perceived to be normal or desired traits.
Suicide: Suicide is the second highest cause of death for college students. The 2019 annual report of Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that, of college students that have visited the counseling center on their campus, 28.7% have self-harmed, 36.7% have seriously considered suicide, and 10.6% have made a suicide attempt. Rates of self-injury and serious suicidal ideation appear to be increasing.
Stigma: The stigma around mental illness and treatment is still prevalent on college campuses. In the 2019 Healthy Minds Study, 47% of students reported perceived stigma, a rate that has remained largely unchanged since 2010. Perceived stigma certainly contributes to some students’ reluctance to reach out for help when they may need it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness College Students Speak 2012 survey found that 40 percent of students with mental health diagnoses did not seek help, with stigma (reported by 36 percent) being the largest barrier to treatment. A UCLA-led study published in Social Science and Medicine found that on college campuses where there is higher stigma toward mental health issues, students were less likely to seek treatment. The study examined data from the Healthy Minds Study at the University of Michigan, finding that school-level stigma is negatively associated with medication use, counseling and therapy visits. The researchers found that students in high-stigma environments were less likely to acknowledge their mental health struggles or admit to suicidal thoughts or self-injury. And stigma can be far greater among certain minority groups (such as Asians and Asian Americans), which may be a contribute to lower rates of help-seeking.
A supportive campus climate can have a significant positive effect. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that campuses with chapters of Active Minds, a national student-peer mental health organization, are associated with increased awareness of mental-health issues, reduced stigma and a rise in “helping behaviors” towards other students experiencing a mental health crisis. In a separate study published in the Journal for American College Health, researchers found that students who were aware of people close to them seeking help were two times more likely to have sought help themselves. The researchers concluded that learning about others’ help seeking is important for students, male students in particular, in facilitating their own help seeking during times of distress.
Diverse Students and Mental Health: Students of color face unique pressures on campus and are less likely than white students to seek help for mental or emotional health issues. A 2017 study by the Jed Foundation and the Steve Fund found that students of color are more likely than their white peers to report feeling isolated on campus (46 percent as compared to 30 percent) and to report feeling overwhelmed most or all of the time (51 percent as compared to 40 percent). The study also found that white students were more likely to seek help than black students, and nearly twice as likely to report receiving a diagnosis of anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Boston University School of Public Health researchers found that that among college students with clinically significant mental health problems, half of white students received treatment in the past year, compared to only one-quarter of African American and Asian students, and one-third of Latinx students. Only 21 percent of African American students with a mental health problem had received a diagnosis, compared with 48 percent of their white peers.
Research has shown that students who identify as LGBTQ have higher rates of mental health problems. One study found queer and transgender students to be much more likely to experience depression and consider suicide than their heterosexual and cisgender peers. In the study, queer and trans students reported self-injury over the previous year at a rate four times as high as their cis and heterosexual peers and considered suicide at a rate three times as high. In a 2017 Rand Corporation study, students who identified as LGBTQ reported higher rates of psychological distress and mental health-related academic impairment than their straight peers. LGBTQ-identifying students are almost two times as likely to use mental health services, and much more likely to report using off-campus services and to report barriers to seeking help at the on-campus counseling center.
Healthy Eating: Proper nutrition is an important aspect of health and wellbeing, both physical and mental. Healthy eating helps prevent obesity, osteoporosis, iron deficiency, dental cavities, and is associated with lower rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. A healthy breakfast has been proven to be associated with improved cognitive function and memory, and improved mood in children and adolescents.
Most young people do not follow the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines; not meeting the minimum recommendations for fruits and vegetables or whole grains, and exceeding the maximum daily intake of sodium. According to a report by the American College Health Association, about 63 percent of college students aren’t eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases: According to a 2017 CDC report, rates of all three nationally reported STDs -Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis – are increasing. The CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur every year in the United States. The 1.7 million new cases of chlamydia in 2017 represents the highest number of annual cases of any condition ever reported to the CDC. Among young people aged 15-24, substantial increases were seen in reported cases of gonorrhea and syphilis in 2017. Young people aged 15-24 are most severely affected by STDs, acquiring about half of all new infections. Sexually active adolescents and young adults are at higher risk of acquiring STDs due to a combination of behavioral, biological, and cultural factors.
This increase in sexually transmitted diseases represents a significant public health challenge. STDs pose a threat to immediate and long-term health and well-being, increasing risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV, and potentially causing severe reproductive health complications, such as infertility and ectopic pregnancy. While young men and women are heavily affected by STDs, women face the most serious long-term health consequences. Each year, an estimated 20,000 women become infertile each year due to undiagnosed STDs cause.
Sleep: College students are one of the most sleep-deprived populations. According to a 2011 study, only 11% of college students in a sample of 191 undergrads had good quality sleep regularly. Sleep is essential for daily functioning, performance, learning and health. Lack of quality sleep can affect physical health by weakening the immune system. Implications for mental health include irritability, depression, confusion, and generally lower life satisfaction. Sleep-deprived students perform significantly worse than students who regularly get quality sleep.
Recent research suggested that lack of sleep is at least as damaging to academic success as binge drinking or doing drugs. Researchers found that each night that college students have sleep problems was associated with a 0.02-point drop in their GPA and 10 percent higher odds that they would drop a course. Sleep disturbances had a greater effect on GPA than being diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and a greater effect on dropping a course than having a learning disability or being a frequent binge drinker. Another recent study found that though driving while sleepy is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated, college students see it as unavoidable and not legally risky. Increasingly, colleges across the country are offering students classes on improving the amount and quality of sleep.
High Risk Drinking: High risk drinking, or binge drinking, is defined as having 5 or more alcoholic drinks for males or 4 or more for females in one sitting. High risk drinking is a serious public health issue with significant social, educational and psychological consequences. It is associated with numerous harmful outcomes, including blackouts, unintentional injuries, alcohol poisoning, unprotected sex that could lead to sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancy, liver disease, neurological damage, alcohol dependence, and accidental death. According to the CDC, in the United States there are an average of 79,000 deaths and 2.3 million years of potential life lost due to excessive alcohol use each year. It is responsible for more than 4,300 deaths among underage youth each year. College students who drink alcohol excessively can experience numerous harmful academic consequences including missed classes, falling grades and failing courses.
Though high risk drinking has been on the decline (from 44% of students reported binge drinking in 1980 to 35% in 2014), it has remained at a very high level. According to a CDC report, high risk drinking prevalence and intensity was highest among young adults, ages 18-24 years. In addition, the CDC reports that about 90% of the alcohol consumed by youth under the age of 21 in the United States is in the form of binge drinks. Four in every ten U.S. college students binge drink, according to a survey by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The NIAAA reports that about one in four college students report academic consequences from drinking, including missing class and receiving lower grades. A study examining the concept of “maturing out” of college drinking patterns after graduation observed that high frequency drinking patterns developed during college are predictive of higher drinking frequency for several years post-graduation.
Underage and high risk drinking have long been issues on college campuses, and continue to trouble college administrators. Administrators have attempted to tackle the alcohol issue on various levels: affecting access to alcohol, penalizing drinking offenses, changing the campus culture and social norms around drinking, education on the effects, harm prevention, offering counseling services, and abuse intervention. Despite colleges efforts to curb high risk drinking on campus over the past decade, alcohol interventions have not produced significant changes in students’ drinking habits.
Marijuana use: Marijuana use is at its highest rate in 35 years. The Monitoring the Future study reported that in 2017, 43 percent of full-time college students ages 19 to 22 reported using marijuana at least once in the past year, and 24.7 percent reported using it at least once in the past 30 days. Daily marijuana use was reported by 5.9% of college students in 2018. Increases have also been reported for lifetime prevalence of cocaine use (5.1% in 2013 to 7.5% in 2018). The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana use during brain development can cause long-term or permanent changes to the brain, and that regular marijuana users display impairment in brain regions used for memory, learning, and impulse control. Additionally, persistent marijuana use has been found to be associated with a loss of an average of 8 IQ points, with young users affected most strongly.
Policies in the United States have traditionally banned marijuana as a controlled substance, but some states have decriminalized (15 states) or legalized (11 states) its use in recent years. Additionally, 33 states have enacted laws to legalize medical marijuana. A recent study showed that students at Oregon State University were much more likely to use marijuana after recreational use became legal in the state. Most of the increase in the post-legalization period was among students who reported using marijuana one to five times a month, not among heavy users. More research is needed on the effect of these new policies on young adults’ mental health, academic success, and physical wellbeing.
Opioid Use: Opiates, traditionally used as a painkiller, have large potential for abuse, as they are highly addictive. There has been a dramatic increase in the use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic pain, but people can become addicted with only one prescription. According to the CDC, every day, 44 people die in the United States from prescription painkiller overdose, and almost 7,000 people are treated in emergency departments for using the drugs in a manner other than directed. Opioid abuse and overdoses have reached epidemic proportions in the United States. An MCF survey of 1,200 young adults found that almost 16% report having used pain pills not prescribed to them, while over 37 percent said they would not know where to go for help in the event of an overdose. The survey also found that opioid painkillers are readily accessible, and that young people do not appreciate the lethal nature or addictive power of the drugs. The survey found little difference between young adults on and off college campuses.
The Hazelden-Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy recommends that college campuses, communities and policymakers focus on education on the dangers of opioids and available resources for help, prudent prescribing of pain medications by student health centers and youth-focused medical professionals, and equipping student health centers to provide screening and intervention services.
Prescription Stimulants: Many college-age young adults have engaged in non-medical use of prescription stimulants, or “study drugs”. Repeated misuse of prescription stimulants can lead to dependency and addiction, feelings of paranoia and hostility, and psychosis. Other risks include irregular heartbeat, elevated body temperature, cardiovascular failure, and seizures.
9.6% of college students admitting to having used Adderall not prescribed to them at least once in a recent survey. An Ohio State University study found that 16 percent of college students misuse stimulant medications in an attempt to help them enhance their grades and cope with college life. However, a recent study observed that, in healthy students, medications fail to improve cognition and actually can impair functioning. When administered to healthy (non-ADHD) college students, the standard 30 mg dose of Adderall did improve attention, mood and focus but these effects failed to translate to better performance on neurocognitive tasks that measured short-term memory, reading comprehension and fluency. 79 percent of stimulant users say they obtained the drugs from friends.
Homeless and food-insecure college students are a largely invisible population, indistinguishable from other students and often overlooked by policymakers. A 2020 Wisconsin Hope Lab report found that more than a third of college students were food insecure in the previous 30 days. Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color: 54% of black students and 47% of Hispanic students reported food insecurity compared with 36% of white students. Among college students, food insecurity often accompanies housing insecurity, which can include difficulty paying rent, mortgage, and utility bills. In this study, 20% of students at four-year colleges reported food and housing insecurity; 32% of students at two-year colleges reported overlapping challenges. Overall, 35 percent of students at four-year colleges reported a degree of housing insecurity, and 16 percent report being homeless. Fifty percent of students at two-year colleges reported a degree of housing insecurity, and 17 percent report being homeless.
This increase in the number of housing and food insecure students is due, in part, to rising costs. College tuition is rising faster than inflation, medical care costs, or need-based financial aid. Other costs associated with a getting a college degree are also rising – books and supplies, transportation and living expenses. Compounding these problems, many social programs meant to provide relief for low income adults are unavailable to undergraduate students. Undergraduates are only eligible to receive food stamps if they meet certain exceptions. Additionally, they are ineligible for Section 8 housing unless they are veterans, parents, or over age 24. Students are paying more than they can borrow in tuition, and their low-paying jobs cannot cover their expenses.
Financial difficulties affect the effort that can be devoted to schoolwork and compromise a student’s chances of completing their degree. The majority of students who have left college without a degree cite financial hardship as the key cause for their withdrawal. Thirty two percent of the food insecure students reported that food or housing insecurity had impacted their academics, some unable to buy required textbooks, others missing or dropping classes. This issue calls for multi-faceted policy change at the institutional, state and federal level.
This increase in the number of housing and food insecure students is due, in part, to rising costs which, in the community college sector, have increased 28% since 2000. College tuition is rising faster than inflation, medical care costs, or need-based financial aid. Other costs associated with a getting a college degree are also rising – books and supplies, transportation, and living expenses. Compounding these problems, many social programs meant to provide relief for low income adults are unavailable to undergraduate students. Undergraduates are only eligible to receive food stamps if they meet certain exceptions. Additionally, they are ineligible for Section 8 housing unless they are veterans, parents, or over age 24. Students are paying more than they can borrow in tuition, and their low-paying jobs cannot cover their expenses.
Financial difficulties affect the effort that can be devoted to schoolwork and compromise a student’s chances of completing a degree. The majority of students who have left college without a degree cite financial hardship as the key cause for their withdrawal. Thirty two percent of the food insecure students reported that food or housing insecurity had impacted their academics, some unable to buy required textbooks, others missing or dropping classes. This issue calls for multi-faceted policy change at the institutional, state and federal level.
While statistics vary, multiple studies have found that as many as 1 out of 5 have women on college campuses have experienced sexual assault. The AAU Campus Climate Survey updated in 2018, found that 13 percent of students at 33 universities reported experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation since enrolling at their college. Furthermore, the incidence of sexual assault and sexual misconduct due to physical force, threats of physical force, or incapacitation among female undergraduate students was 25.9 percent, with 12.8 percent having experienced nonconsensual penetration. Drugs and alcohol were involved in a significant percentage of the incidents of nonconsensual sexual contact.
Administrations are increasingly concerned with their role in sexual assault prevention, and whether they are equipped to act as a judiciary system. During the Obama administration, there was an increase in utilization of the Title IX as a tool to combat campus sexual assaults. The Education Department under the Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era regulations and implemented changes meant to better protect students accused of sexual assault. The new Title IX rule changes would require accused students be allowed to cross-examine their accusers. These changes have been met with significant pushback from sexual assault victim advocates. Colleges and universities across the country are experimenting with alternative forms of dispute resolution, with some outsourcing sexual assault and harassment investigations and hearings.
Many schools educate their student body on consent practices and bystander intervention to help prevent sexual assaults. A meta-analysis in the Journal of American College Health reviewed the effectiveness of bystander intervention training, finding that students who participated these programs, when compared to those who had not, were more likely to hold pro-social attitudes and beliefs about sexual violence and engaged in more bystander behavior. The study found that though the positive effects diminished over time, meaningful changes persisted for at least three months after the intervention, and that longer programs had the largest effects on attitudes and beliefs.
Targeted education campaigns directed at high risk groups have become a popular intervention strategy (e.g. fraternities, athletic teams). A recent study examined the effectiveness of a college student-driven sexual consent education campaign at a large, public university. Researchers found that the consent education campaign improved students understanding of consent, with college men and members of university-affiliated Greek organizations experiencing the greatest improvements in understanding. Affirmative consent (or yes means yes) policies, which spell out indications that would indicate a person may be incapable of giving consent, are also on the rise. Recent research observed that students who received sex education, including refusal skills training, before college are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college.
Another recent study suggested that college sexual assault interventions may benefit from programming that integrates primary prevention (preventing incidents of sexual assault) and risk reduction approaches (teaching potential victims how to thwart an assault attempt). The study demonstrated that participation in a sexual assault prevention program combining these approaches lowered the odds of assault and had a lasting change on students’ beliefs and attitudes.
Gun Violence: According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, there has been an increase in campus shootings. In 2013, the latest available data, 23 people died on campus at American colleges and universities due to murder or non-negligent manslaughter. That number was 15 in 2008, and 17 in 2009. In 2011, there was a sharp increase to 45 deaths as a result of the Virginia Tech shooting. The increase in active shooter situations on campus reflects the increase in mass shootings at the societal level.
Nationally, campus law enforcement agencies continue to evaluate their practices and train employees and campus officers how to deal with campus violence. Colleges have increasingly adopted full police departments and have more officers armed.
At the state level, some legislatures have considered regulations on whether or not to permit guns on college campuses. Some lawmakers argue for a need to allow concealed weapons on campus to further prevent these attacks, while most believe the solution to be tightening restrictions to keep guns off campuses completely. In 2013, at least 19 states introduced legislation to allow concealed carry on campus to some extent, and 14 more states introduced similar legislation. Two bills allowing concealed carry on campus passed in 2013, one in Kansas that allowed general concealed carry, and on in Arkansas that gave faculty permission to carry a concealed weapon. Bills that would force colleges to allow guns on campus were introduced in 18 different states in both 2015 and 2016 and 20 states in 2017. However, states have overwhelmingly rejected these bills.
There is no credible evidence to suggest that students carrying concealed weapons would reduce campus violence. Furthermore, a 2014 study found a correlation between enactment of loosened firearm restrictions in “right to carry” states and an increase in aggravated assaults. A joint statement by Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA) and five other student groups representing 50,000 student affairs administrators, declared their firm opposition to legislation that would allow or expand the legal possession of firearms on college campuses. Their statement cited survey data indicating that 94% of faculty and 78% of students oppose guns on campus.
Violence and Hate Crimes:
College administrators are rightly worried about violence occurring on their campuses. According to a survey by the American Council on Education, seventy percent of college presidents are somewhat or very concerned about the prospect of violence on their campuses as a result of issues related to free speech and inclusion.
Organizations that track hate crimes have seen a significant rise in reports, especially since the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. Department of Education released information regarding campus crime in 2016, which included the fact that the number of reported campus hate crimes increased by 25 percent from 2015 to 2016. Nearly 280 hate crimes were reported in 2017 to the FBI by select campus police departments, up from 257 in 2016 and 194 in 2015. The largest year-to-year increases in hate crimes reported to the FBI, in terms of motivating bias, occurred in crimes against multiracial victims, African-Americans, and Jews. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that nearly 40 percent of hate crimes are related to race.
Alt-right groups and white supremacists have been actively targeting college campuses. The Anti-Defamation League verified 630 incidents of white nationalist propaganda – flyers, banners, posters, etc. – at more than 200 college and university campuses in 2019, nearly double the 319 campus incidents in 2018. In 2017, the ADL recorded 292 on-campus incidents.
Colleges are increasingly concerned with how well they retain and graduate students, especially black and Hispanic students, and students who are first-generation or low income. According to a review by the Educational Policy Institute, students who leave school cost colleges $16.5 billion a year, collectively, in foregone tuition. Students are also getting harder to replace in the midst of an enrollment drop that has persisted for eight consecutive years, according to data from National Student Clearinghouse. In 2019, the nation’s fall enrollment fell below 18 million for the first time in the decade.
A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center highlighted the racial disparities in persistence and completion rates for African-American and Hispanic students According to the report, Asian and white students had much higher completion rates (70.3 percent and 67.1 percent, respectively) than Hispanic and black students (49.6 percent and 41 percent, respectively). And the report found that black students are the only group that is more likely to drop out or discontinue enrollment than to complete a credential within six years.
And while college graduation rates overall have increased in the past decade, graduation rates for black students have not progressed as much as for other student groups. A report by the Education Trust presents evidence from a study of 232 institutions, showing that graduation rates for black students improved 4.4 percentage points, compared with 5.6 points for white students, over the previous decade. As graduation rates for black students have not shown as much progress, the gap in completion rates between black and white students continues to grow. Furthermore, the study found that one third of the institutions in the study did not improve graduation rates for black students at all, and 39 showed declining graduation rates for black students. A white paper from EAB Research, “Reframing the Question of Equity,” observed that low-income, first-generation students are nearly four times more likely than their peers to drop out after their first year.
Single mothers also have significantly lower graduation rates than their peers. According to a briefing paper by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, just 28 percent of single mothers graduate with a degree or certificate within 6 years of enrollment, and 55 percent leave school before earning a credential. The report states that single mothers in college face substantial time demands that make persistence and graduation difficult.
Degree attainment is also heavily affected by mental wellbeing. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness College Students Speak 2012 survey, a national survey of college students living with mental health conditions, 64% of survey respondents who said they are no longer in college have stopped attending college due to a mental health related reason. And the Healthy Minds Network estimates that 30% of depressed college student will drop out if they do not receive mental health treatment. Many of these dropouts are avoidable. Numerous studies indicate the academic and emotional benefits of receiving mental health services while in college. One study found that students who were exposed to counseling services during their first year in college had a retention rate of three times that of a comparison group. Past research also indicates that students who receive counseling are also more likely to graduate within 6 years than those who do not. A growing number of colleges are formalizing the role of faculty in identifying and addressing students struggling with things like isolation, withdrawal and depression.
Administrators are searching for innovative and effective solutions to increase their retention, especially among students of color, and first-generation and low income students. Some schools have dropped the admission requirement for students to submit SAT or ACT scores, which is meant to level the playing field for first-generation and low-income students. Some schools are investing in technology that tracks performance and hiring advising staff to assist in course selection. Colleges and universities have traditionally relied on a single program to promote success and prevent dropout among freshman students. Increasingly they are taking a more holistic approach to retention, combining multiple solutions. A recent review of over 1,800 research studies on college students found that some of the most common approaches for promoting student success simply aren’t effective, such as performance-based funding for state schools. On the other hand, providing more money to support public colleges and universities, especially if used for need-based aid and student services, was shown to increase degree attainment.
The Mary Christie Quarterly provides news, information and commentary on the policy issues that impact the health and wellness of young adults. You can access past issues of the Mary Christie Quarterly here .