empty college class representing how the recession is decreasing enrollment

How the Recession Will Affect At-Risk Students (And What Can Be Done About It)

It goes without saying that the threat of a recession can hamper many industries. Contrary to what some may think, higher education is no exception to this rule. As times get tougher economically, universities and colleges tend to see reduced enrollment figures and lower student retention and graduation rates. 

For the students who are at risk even in the best of times, the impacts of an economic downturn are often even more severe. With many economists calling for a recession in the coming months, higher education should be actively seeking solutions for this group of students.

Universities should be alert for several reasons. While there are obvious moral and objective-based concerns about letting a large group of students slip away, there are also practical and financial considerations. Declining enrollment figures directly impact the financial health of any university, while DFWs and dropouts impact graduation rates. Those same rates could damage future enrollment or the institution’s reputation, creating a vicious cycle.

With that in mind, the higher education community needs to prepare for what the next few years could hold in store for them. This is accomplished through proactive measures to protect at-risk students, shore up universities’ financial situations, and find new ways to drive enrollment and innovate. We’ll look at some of the hard data on how universities fare in poor economies, as well as what can be done to improve those results. As any educator knows, having the right information is the key to taking the right action.

Universities & recession

Universities, as a whole, should always have enrollment growth year-over-year due to one simple, constant factor: population growth. While the United State’s population’s growth rate has slowed down in recent years, it still represents a large sum numerically. In short, even if the percentage of citizens pursuing higher education does not change, the total enrollment numbers should still increase as the percentage applies to a larger number of people.

This sets a basic expectation that universities can continue to grow enrollment, should they want to. It is also important to note for our purposes that the percentage of students who would be deemed “at risk” – those with housing, food, and income insecurity or those who tend to struggle more academically – is also on the rise. Taken in combination, this means that every year universities take in more and more students, and a higher and higher percentage of them are at-risk of not completing their education for academic, personal, or financial reasons.

That can be a lot for any administrator to handle. Add a bad overall economic climate to the mix, and it just becomes exponentially more difficult. Enrollment in higher education during recessions is often portrayed as a “mixed bag,” so to speak. Studies will quote the increased enrollment figures seen by universities during the Great Recession as evidence that higher education is immune to overall economic conditions. While factually correct, this doesn’t provide administrators and decision-makers with the complete picture.

The realities

As discussed above, universities should always see increasing enrollment. Between a sustained, consistent push in the K-12 system for more students to attain greater education levels and a constantly increasing population, a drop in enrollment figures would be outright horrible.

What typically happens instead is a slowing in the rate at which enrollments increase, rather than an outright drop. This happens simultaneously with an uptick in the number of at-risk students as families’ financial situations decline at home. The end result? Increased enrollments, more DFWs, and decreased graduations, typically. This is a reflection of universities failing to retain their at-risk students and allowing this often-overlooked group to formally drop out or, as is often the case, just stop attending. The next semester arrives and some students are just…no longer there.

This at-risk group – largely low-income, disproportionately minority, and very often socially separated from their classmates. Even before the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, studies routinely found that poorer students were less likely to fit in and significantly more likely to drop out. While this is an issue for higher education institutions, it also represents an avoidable personal setback for the actual students.

Students from low-income backgrounds are exponentially less likely to attend colleges or universities in the first place, owing to a multitude of socioeconomic issues outside the scope of higher education’s control. The students that do manage to make it to post-secondary education have likely already overcome tremendous obstacles just to get accepted and enrolled. Once they’ve reached that stage, it is the university’s duty to itself and to its students to do everything in the administration’s power to make sure that those students stay there and accomplish what they set out to.

A complicated task in the best of times, but an even more challenging one when the economy turns sour. Not only are more students likely to fall into this “at risk” category during a recession, but the ones that are already there may find their financial situation or that of their family has become even worse. Students may feel pressure to work full-time and help at home rather than pursue their education, or may lack even the smallest of resources necessary to continue their studies.

COVID-19 exacerbated these problems in two ways. First, the far-reaching economic fallout from the pandemic put more students into this category than ever before. Second, the transition to online courses and distance learning was one that many at-risk students could not make, as they lacked computers, internet connections, or other required support at home. The results were clear – enrollment was down across the board. So much so that many began to question whether there were deeper problems in the field.

Universities and colleges that wish to expand their enrollment and retain students at a higher rate are facing a more difficult climate than any in at least a generation. The answer may very well rest within those same at-risk students.

Retaining Students

For institutions looking to get proactive about at-risk students, retention is a good place to start. Unlike enrollment, which can be impacted by macroeconomic factors and cultural changes outside of an administrator’s control, retention largely reflects the success of actions taken inside a college or university. As a result, it’s an area easier targeted when trying to make improvements. 

Not only that, but graduation rates often have a high impact on prospective students when deciding where to apply and enroll. As any professional in higher education knows, enrollment troubles can quickly become funding and scholarship issues, so any edge in this department would be a critical advantage. Improved student retention can improve all these metrics simultaneously. 

Leaders in higher education may rightfully wonder what more they’re supposed to do. Already torn between balancing budgets, staffing concerns, providing an actual education, and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment, administrators are often pulled in many different directions. Adding one more concern might seem overwhelming.

It doesn’t have to be, however. While higher education has long had a rather unwelcome notoriety for being resistant to change, many new technological advances have spurred universities into action and shrugged off this change-averse label. While the pandemic forced some quick adoption of new educational styles across the world, many universities were already revamping their methods and building a better support system for their students.

Assisting Students Who Need it Most

The at-risk students we’ve discussed at length often cite mental health issues, poor academic performance, and a poor social fit as reasons they won’t be returning to school for the next semester. These problems often have solutions, provided the university or college has the right systems in place.

Studies have highlighted a number of ways these at-risk students can be brought back into the fold and allowed to reach their full potential. Oftentimes, universities already have programs in place to address these issues, but students don’t realize it. It can also be a matter of having difficult to locate or use services. Still, educators would do well to focus on the areas that retain students best. A few of the most pertinent suggestions are below:


Proper counseling can do wonders for students who are struggling in the higher education environment. Each student’s circumstances are unique and distinctive, but those that feel they’re struggling or out of place usually share some basic concerns.

Counseling can assist students who are having trouble structuring their time in a way that’s conducive to learning. The same services can also serve as a moral or social support system for students that are having difficulty making friends with their peers or those that struggle in adapting to their new environment. In short, good counseling can aid students of all backgrounds on issues both academic and social.

Tutoring and supplemental instruction: 

Depending on the university and each student’s background, the jump in difficulty from high school to a college education can be a severe one. Students who previously had to put in little effort to succeed may suddenly find themselves needing more time than they thought they would. Those who were solid, if not outstanding students in high school may be having difficulty grasping the material at all.

In a worst-case scenario, this will lead students to believe that they’re just “not a good fit” for college or perhaps “don’t belong” in the higher education environment. Having run into challenges for the first time, they may mistake it for failure.

Honing in on a student’s specific difficulties with a particular class or subject and providing a different approach to the material can often remedy these situations entirely, or at least improve them dramatically. Additional instruction time or a one-on-one approach with a tutor can both turn these obstacles into success stories, showing students they’re capable enough to handle the material.

Research has shown that tutored students consistently perform better academically and are more likely to graduate. Sometimes a little extra attention is all a student needs.


One area that students often struggle, particularly in recent years, is with their writing skills. Even those who grasp the course material often earn substandard marks due to their communication and writing errors. Since formal writing courses fall outside the scope of many majors, this critical component can often fall by the wayside. 

By targeting this one, universally relevant area, universities can improve academic success rates for students across the board. Since academic performance is one of the biggest indicators of whether a student will stick with their education, this can make a critical difference for any university. Additional reviews of papers and assignments and one-on-one coaching can make all the difference in this area, as well.

In short, by targeting the specific social and academic reasons that students fail to graduate, administrators can boost retention rates, reduce DFWs, and ultimately, build a better reputation and drive enrollment. All with a few, narrow changes to their methods.

Getting Proactive

Higher education leaders may wonder how they can possibly accomplish all these tasks with their already-limited resources. Personalized instruction is time and labor-intensive, after all. Not every institution will have the budget to spare the personnel.

Luckily, developments in technology and software have eased the burden on educators in recent years. With smarter tech, universities and colleges can now track student performance and receive alerts on at-risk students so they can proactively assign them the help they need. Supplemental courses and writing reviews can all take place in a user-friendly, easy-to-access system where educators and students alike can monitor progress and see feedback in real-time.

By simplifying their systems and allowing students to quickly and efficiently navigate to the appropriate resources or assistance they need, educators can make sure the programs they already have in place are providing the maximum value for their students. This can also simplify the lives of staff and faculty when the administrative side of their job becomes much less complex.

QuadC is a specialized academic support provider with proven results working with educators on these exact concerns. Between GPA increases, DFW reductions, and higher student retention, QuadC’s success stories span the education field. Leaders who are looking to get proactive in this tough climate shouldn’t waste any time. Get started today!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top