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  • Elizabeth Laughlin

Survival Mode: The Greatest Deterrent to Student Retention

The Mental Strain of Survival Mode

As humans, we all experience stress. How it manifests and what triggers it differs from person to person, but at the end of the day, it's an experience everyone goes through. However, studies have revealed that people in poverty (and likely in ALICE as well) experience chronic stress. The constant financial strain from constantly worrying about satisfying basic needs begins to take it's toll, and more often than not, those people slip into survival mode. Bombarded with stress, their priorities shift and statistically, they abandon all medium-term and long-term plans to hyper-fixate on the situation immediately beforehand.

For example, think about a burglar breaking into your home in the middle of the night. Your brain doesn't present you with future-need problems at that moment: you aren't thinking about your retirement accounts or what careers paths are available to you at your work. You're fixated on the intruder's whereabouts, how to protect yourself and your family, and the best way to protect your property. You are hyper-fixated on the task in front of you because it's all you can see, all your brain shows you. And for people in poverty or ALICE, they're constantly stuck in this meeting-immediate-needs response.

A study exploring the emotional wellbeing of people in poverty during the pandemic illustrates the lasting impact of financial stress on a person:

The theme that emerged from the respondents' comments can be summarized as follows: Life in poverty is a constant financial challenge. Being constantly in survival mode takes an emotional and social toll, putting these families' mental and physical health at risk.

And while many of us have bounced back from the repercussions of the pandemic, those living in poverty or considered ALICE still have chronic, persistent struggles and stress in their lives. They are still forced to make tough decisions, forced into a constant state of meeting-immediate-needs due to limited funds.

Think back to your own mental state during the shutdown. Did you worry about your job? Your income? Making mortgage or rent, worrying for your friends and family, unsure what the future held in store?

Imagine what you might be like, if that period of time stretched outward indefinitely. When you didn't see an end in sight, when the promise of opening back up wasn't on the horizon. How would your mental state suffer under the constant weight of the unknown, that feeling paired with the uncertainty about whether you had enough money to survive the month.

The Dance Between Survival Mode and the Educational Journey

This ties in with an article we published about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In it, we detailed how students must first meet their physiological needs before they are able to concentrate on higher tiered needs such as safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. But this exploration of what happens to a person constantly trapped in that first level of needs illustrations a fundamental barrier to student retention in adult education programs.

Students forced to constantly stress over limited financial resources are ill-equipped to persist in an adult education program. It isn't a matter of willpower or dedication, though both certainly play a factor in an overall sense. The overarching, foundational issues, the largest chunk of the pie, lies deeper than that. Students trapped underneath the emotional, mental, and financial strain of poverty (or near adjacent such as ALICE) must first meet their basic needs before their brain allows them the space to focus on future goals. And unfortunately, most adult education programs are unable to provide such blanket assistance in additional to educational support.

In order to help these students, in order to set them up for success, their basic needs must be met. They must be able to turn off survival mode and given the air to consider the future, secure in the knowledge that their present is stable. Only then can these students begin to consider the opportunities that education provides.

This assessment is based on our own adult education programs, from our own interactions with students, and not any kind of formalized experiment or observational study.


Lewin, Alisa C et al. “Surviving in Crisis Mode: The Effect of Material Hardship and Social Support on Emotional Wellbeing Among People in Poverty During COVID-19.” Social indicators research vol. 165,1 (2023): 245-265. doi:10.1007/s11205-022-03011-7


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