The Students Stopping Out Due to COVID-19 & How to Support Them for Increased Enrollment

Main points
  • 25% of students have delayed their higher education enrollment since the pandemic began
  • COVID has intensified the struggles of: students of color (especially women), those with low incomes, and those with mental health challenges
  • In turn, they face increased barriers to enrolling and completing their degrees
  • Higher education institutions must better understand and support their most vulnerable students to promote equity and fight decreases in enrollment this fall
  • ReUp Education offers the revolutionary solutions and expertise needed for higher education institutions to address these issues holistically and sustainably


As dropping infections bring the promise of in-person learning this fall, the impacts of COVID-19 continue to pose barriers to students’ return. A whopping 25% of college students have delayed their enrollment. And this spring semester saw the steepest decline in undergraduate enrollment since the pandemic began. 

What’s more, student achievement and motivation has decreased after months of online classes and uncertain futures.

COVID has brought numerous challenges to students. Although restrictions are likely to ease significantly by this fall, the decline in higher education enrollment is only expected to continue. This is largely due to the inequities perpetuated by COVID, posing unprecedented barriers for the most vulnerable students.

Schools must adapt. Enrollment success for this fall and beyond will require higher education institutions to recognize and target students who are struggling most so they can stay enrolled and reach graduation. This post explores those populations, offers ideas for intervention, and discusses how ReUp’s innovative service is able to effectively target and support impacted students.


The students who are stopping out due to COVID

Vulnerable and marginalized students who must work harder than the average student to earn degrees have always faced barriers to equity. COVID has only exacerbated these struggles.

There are many reasons why a student may decide to stop out. But because COVID has posed such a wide variety of challenges, from psychological stress to unemployment, there are many ways that students are being forced to temporarily stop attending school.

Like most inequalities that Americans face, the gap between those with and without degrees is only going to widen without targeted interventions in higher education and the labor market. This trend, of course, spills over into every area of people’s lives, including their ability to take care of their health, families, and communities.

For higher education, this incurs a responsibility to take a deeper look at stopout students. Contrary to many common myths, this population is largely motivated to return and academically capable. However, when colleges lack the knowledge and support staff to find out what these students need, they may be missing an opportunity to engage students to return and ultimately succeed.


Students of color

Higher education has long been disproportionately inaccessible to non-white learners. A wide variety of systemic racial injustices, from income inequality to lack of access to healthcare, mean that minorities are more vulnerable to the negative effects of COVID and school closures. This is especially true for women of color who stand at the intersection of multiple systemic injustices.

As a result, enrollment for students of color has declined at significantly higher rates than for white students. Notably, they rely more on the support and resources available to them within in-person settings to succeed academically.

For example, inequalities in health and wages mean that COVID has disproportionately harmed the mental and physical well-being of racial/ethnic minority populations. Particularly, minority students are in greater need of interpersonal and academic support to mitigate their high risk of leaving school. This is especially true for first-generation students who lack access to advice on educational decisions.

While such additional support has been shown to have a significant impact on university students’ decisions to stay in school, higher education institutions may lack the resources and personalized understanding of students to implement effective interventions.


Low-income students

The pandemic has also brought financial insecurity (which, of course, often intersects with racial inequities). With skyrocketing unemployment and loss of hours, many have lost their ability to finance their studies. Now, people without degrees are experiencing difficulties finding even low-skilled jobs. For instance, in March, over 900,000 US jobs were added, but only 7,000 of these jobs went to people without degrees. Therefore, the high cost of higher education, especially 4-year programs, is more of a barrier than ever before.

While this trend has funneled more students in community college programs, even these institutions have seen drops of over 10% as students face a wide array of difficulties attending and paying for classes.

Additionally, due to the digital divide, students who cannot afford access to technology and the internet have been left behind. Those without internet at home have to go to extreme measures like sitting in McDonald’s parking lots to attend classes or complete coursework, which, unsurprisingly, ends up becoming unsustainable for many of them.

All of these issues are compounded by the fact that low-income students tend to have inaccurate perceptions about their eligibility for financial aid or don’t know where to look. While schools could intervene, most currently do not reach out to offer financial advice and help finding resources. The result is a large population of students who leave school and often don’t return because they aren’t able to connect with the right information and support.


Students with mental health challenges

COVID has created a myriad of social and personal uncertainties, deeply impacting those facing mental health challenges. Economic volatility, social isolation, health concerns, and collective grief are just some of the reasons that drive people into emotional turmoil.

Students in or on their way to higher education are also experiencing heightened stress due to pandemic conditions. In a survey conducted by Rise, a college affordability advocacy group, 75% of college students reported feeling higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress since the pandemic started.

Students with depression and anxiety have also been more likely to miss class. The challenges of COVID can build obstacles, both real and invisible, in front of seemingly simple tasks like completing financial aid documents or classwork. Many of these students lack support networks and thus do not have access to the essential advice that would otherwise help them overcome such hurdles. Others may lack financial resources to get the mental health counseling they need to empower themselves.

For mentally vulnerable students, feeling empowered to overcome challenges can often make the difference between staying in school or not. During such an overwhelming time, supportive interventions are more critical than ever.


What can colleges do?

While the overall situation will improve as vaccines roll out, a lot of COVID’s damage has left vulnerable students more behind than ever. This is why targeted support and interventions are urgent in order to make sure those students can catch up.

“We don’t yet know how long this new world will last or what things will look like on the other side. But we’ve found that by bringing these ideas and services together, we’ve helped students get the education and support they need at a time when it has never been more important.” –Don Stansberry, interim VP of student engagement & enrollment services, Old Dominion University

If left unaddressed, increasing inequities in higher education will have lasting negative effects on student outcomes and enrollment. On average, all populations of students have fallen behind academically. And while white students are around 4 to 8 months behind, students of color are 6 to 12 months behind. Ultimately, this will lead to wider gaps in graduation and employment rates.

Therefore, it is time for colleges, universities, and other higher education institutions to act now in order to safeguard both short- and long-term enrollment rates and student success. At the heart of these efforts must be an increased focus on valuing individuals and their situations. Here are some suggestions:


Invest in better understanding of students getting left behind

For most higher education institutions, resources and staff dedicated to understanding why students stop out are extremely limited. As a result, when these students pause their academic activities, schools can  unnecessarily leave students behind.

With a better understanding of the different factors that lead students to pause their studies, it is much easier to know what kinds of interventions are necessary in order to boost and maintain strong enrollment rates.

For over 5 years, ReUp has been developing a state-of-the-art solution to building a deeper understanding of stopout students.

ReUp’s patent-pending Personas technology revolutionizes the way that we can understand key factors in a student’s life that either enable or inhibit their pursuit of degree completion. Based on these dynamic insights, adaptive intervention strategies can be employed to help improve the likelihood of successful outcomes for all students at scale.

By leveraging machine learning and our growing database of millions of student interactions across the country — combined with the outstanding support and empathy of our Success Coacheswe are constantly improving our expertise on why students leave school, why they wish to return, what’s in their way, and how to best support them in achieving their goals.


Improve communication and support to students, including non-traditional ones

With a decrease in face-to-face engagement from teachers and advisors, students are increasingly missing deadlines and getting left behind. One of the most important approaches that higher education institutions, especially community colleges, can take in preparation for the fall semester is investing in quality outreach to keep students engaged and supported. This includes expanding outreach to adult learners and marginalized communities to further boost enrollment.

Our work with hundreds of thousands of stopped out students has shown us that very often, students stop out because they are unsure of how to balance the many priorities in their lives with school — and seemingly small obstacles such as missing a deadline and not knowing where to seek further support can be the trigger that leads to stopping out.

We also know that coaching is one particularly effective way of reducing the internal and external challenges that vulnerable students face. In fact, research by ReUp and City University of New York has shown that the more quality relationships a student has in their life, the more likely they are to return to school. ReUp’s patent-pending Personas technology, which uses our vast database to predict students’ behaviors and outcomes, also emphasizes the importance of interpersonal support.

Quality coaching can build those interpersonal skills and help them make a plan for how to return to/stay in school when they are ready and able. This is another area of ReUp’s expertise. As one of our Success Coaches, Shannon McDonald, says: “Reup believes that students are whole human beings capable of achieving what they want to achieve. This approach makes them feel heard, honored, and supported. We’ve seen that this empowers them to rise to the occasion.

Additionally, ReUp’s unparalleled approach to student communication recognizes the gaps that higher education institutions cannot currently fill. By updating universities’ contact lists and engaging stopped out students in ways that fit their needs, schedules, behaviors, and communication styles, ReUp shows students that they are cared about. As we get to know them, our communication and coaching adapt so students receive the personalized support they need.


Identify and remove enrollment deterrents in systems and policy

To accommodate students who have personal/family responsibilities, such as single mothers attending school who can no longer afford daycare, or those who need extra time for mental health reasons, higher education institutions can consider relaxed term dates and academic year lengths as well as elongated deadlines for paperwork. It is also important to look at re-enrollment processes and assess potential difficulties that may deter students from returning.

At times, even with access to resources and support, students still need to take a break from school, especially as a result of the pandemic. Framing these breaks from education as a measured, practical response to difficult life situations can empower students. More relaxed policies could include allowing students to take a leave of absence to take care of personal or financial matters, or being more lenient about how many credit hours a student must take to be defined as “enrolled.”

While schools can self-identify many larger systemic issues, ReUp is able to pinpoint particular problems that administration might not be able to identify without regular interactions with stopout students. As ReUp engages and collects information on the students we work with, we are able to collate data and feedback on barriers they are facing at their schools. As part of our partnership agreements, we provide these insights on systemic barriers regularly so that institutions can better understand ways to improve enrollment and student outcomes in the long term.


Support transfer students

Personal changes such as relocation or life changes that require a new career path require many students to transfer to a school that is a better fit. COVID has also perpetuated the need for these kinds of adjustments (for example, many students have moved home since the pandemic began). However, millions of students face institutional barriers when attempting to transfer. 

This is why ReUp offers students access to our network of partners and programs. The network includes over 2500 innovative programs aligned with the future of work. Students can easily transfer to an institution that fits their changing needs, while receiving personalized support on their path to completion.


ReUp can help you solve these challenges

ReUp’s goal is to help higher education institutions find stopout students who are getting left behind and connect with them in order to help them re-enroll and complete. Currently, only 13% of students who pause their studies end up coming back; however, 89% express a desire to return to graduate

ReUp is changing that by leveraging technology and success coaching to bridge the gap between students’ aspirations and abilities to complete their degrees. As Success Coach Shannon says: “Equity is a huge part of this work. ReUp can reduce the inequities brought about by COVID by removing so many of the obstacles in front of our students that don’t need to be there.”

Our revolutionary technologies and approaches have brought just shy of 16,000 students back to school and over 3,500 through to graduation since 2015. And our success is only becoming increasingly important as higher education must adapt to the needs and issues that students face as a result of COVID-19. 

As Don Stansberry, interim vice president of student engagement and enrollment services at Old Dominion University, has said: “We don’t yet know how long this new world will last or what things will look like on the other side. But we’ve found that by bringing these ideas and services together, we’ve helped students get the education and support they need at a time when it has never been more important.

What’s more, we offer these holistic, game-changing services at no upfront cost to our partners, meaning there is no risk for you; we are only compensated for success.

Connect with us today and learn more about how ReUp can be your partner and solution to the multiple enrollment and retention problems created and exacerbated by COVID-19.