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What's behind America's college completion crisis?

Feb 27, 2017

Earning a college degree can create a pathway to a better job, higher wages and overall improved quality of life. Studies show that college graduates earn significantly more money throughout their lifetime people with just a high school degree.

But America is facing a college completion crisis. Less than 50% of the nation's college students ever graduate. Former education secretary John B. King wrote for The New York Times:

Americans are indeed earning more degrees than ever before. Still, far too many students start college but do not finish, with students of color and first-generation and low-income students dropping out at higher rates than their white or better-off peers. 

Close to half of America's college students attend community colleges, which enroll nearly 10 million students each year. But less than 20% of students at those schools earn an associate's degree within three years.

So, what's to blame for America's college completion challenge?

According to CityLab, there are two main reasons students are dropping out: inadequate preparation and difficulty navigating college.

Many high school students - particularly those living in poverty - are not adequately prepared for college coursework. Colleges typically rely on standardized test scores to determine whether these students will be required to take developmental, or remedial, math and English courses. According to CityLab:

Students may be required to take anywhere from one to three developmental courses, which must be taken sequentially and don’t confer college credit. The delay costs students both time and money—developmental courses use up financial aid, which has a lifetime limit, and don’t count toward a degree—and produces frustration and discouragement. Seventy percent of students assigned to developmental courses never complete college.

Students may also find it difficult to balance school and other responsibilities, and to navigate the higher education system.

Non-traditional students are the majority on college campuses in the U.S. These students are often juggling a job and family.

Low-income students may experience hunger or homelessness while trying to stay on top of their coursework.

And many first-generation students lack guidance or prior exposure to processes like choosing classes that will lead to a degree, getting academic support or applying for financial aid. My colleague Dustin Dwyer previously reported:

In 2006, the federal Department of Education issued a nearly 60-page report on the future of higher education. One of its main findings: the current system for getting financial aid is "confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative, and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it." The report noted that the FAFSA, the main way to apply for federal financial aid, is more complicated for many families than filing their taxes.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations. JFF has developed solutions to improve college completion rates nationwide, including:

  • Redesigning remedial education to make developmental classes credit-bearing and to change the way academic readiness is measured;
  • Guiding students through course selection and providing intensive advising and other supports; and
  • Developing early-college high schools where high schools students can take college courses for credit.

According to CityLab:

Most students (94%) in these programs graduate from high school with some college credit, and a third earn an associate’s degree by graduation, allowing them to enroll directly in a four-year college. JFF has helped start or redesign more than 280 early-college schools that currently serve more than 80,000 students nationwide.

“It is in all our long-term interest to make sure that students not only have access to a high-quality education but also that they graduate,” John B. King wrote.

And he's right. The dropout crisis costs the economy billions each year in lost earnings and income tax revenue, according to ThinkProgress.

That means that finding ways to keep all college students engaged and on track will have an impact beyond just boosting graduation rates.