Why Students Don't Graduate

Dec 16, 2009

With the president calling for the U.S. to dramatically improve our national college completion rates, many organizations are taking a closer look at the reasons that such an alarming number of people don't finish school. The nonprofit research group Public Agenda performed a national survey of young Americans to learn more about the challenges students face from their own points of view.

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By Megan Driscoll

college completion graduation rates

The Importance of College Completion

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 educational attainment survey, at least 17% of the population over the age of 25 left college before earning a degree. And for many other students, the path to completion is long and arduous - the U.S. Department of Education reports that only 20% of students at community colleges finish within three years, and only about four in ten students at 4-year institutions earn their bachelor's degrees within six years.

This is particularly troubling in light of the economic effects of not earning a college degree. Figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that in 2008, the average salary for individuals with just high school diplomas was $32,000 for men and $25,000 for women. By contrast, the average annual income for those with college degrees was $55,000 for men and $45,000 for women.

It's clear that we have an economic stake in encouraging more people to finish college, both as individuals and as a society. But in order to improve college completion rates, we must first try to understand why they're dropping out.

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Struggling to Resolve the Conflict Between School and the 'Real World'

The nonprofit research group Public Agenda set out to understand the obstacles in the way of graduation from the students' point of view. They surveyed over 600 Americans between the ages of 22 and 30, comparing the experiences and views of those who had finished their degrees and those who had only completed some college coursework.

Researchers found that college dropouts aren't, in fact, students who were too lazy or bored to follow through. Typically, students who fail to finish college are facing significant financial hurdles and tend not to fully understand the consequences of not finishing their degrees. They're also less likely to have gone through a careful college selection process, and they may not have attended an institution that meets their needs.

In fact, the conflict between work and school is the number one reason that students reported leaving college. A full 71% reported that being unable to both work and attend school due to stress and scheduling conflicts was the biggest reason for not finishing their degrees. For many of these students, this obstacle was already a problem in their first years of higher education.

Students who dropped out are also more likely to be supporting themselves financially, rather than relying on parental support or financial aid: 58% reported having no help from relatives and 69% reported not having any loans or scholarships. Many of these students' ability to go to college is therefore dependent on being able to work, making it even more difficult for them to stay in school when there's a conflict.

Furthermore, not having parental support tends to lead students to choose schools based on certain factors such as tuition costs, proximity to work and the availability of courses that fit around work schedules. Although these aren't unreasonable things to consider, they don't necessarily lead a student to select a school that's a good fit for them academically or socially. In fact, many drop outs didn't even consider things like their job prospects after graduation or the availability of a major within their interests when selecting a school. As a result, they aren't as enfranchised at their institutions from the beginning.

Keeping Students on Track

Public Agenda also set out to learn what might have kept these students in school. Students who dropped out agreed that the following ideas would help people in similar circumstances to finish their degrees:

  • Allowing part-time students to qualify for financial aid.
  • Offering more evening, weekend and summer courses to accommodate work schedules.
  • Cutting the total cost of attending college by 25%.
  • Offering more college loans from the government.
  • Providing day care services.
  • Teaching high school students the study habits they need for college.
  • Offering more hands-on programs and apprenticeships outside of the classroom.
  • Making health insurance available to more students, including part-time.
  • Increasing the level of help from advisers in finding the right college or vocational program.
  • Including classes that are relevant to real life.

The problem clearly isn't motivation. In focus groups, the researchers found that most students who hadn't finished college dreamed of returning to school. If the education system can integrate even a few of their ideas - some of which are more doable than others - we may be able to make significant progress toward boosting college completion rates.

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