Earning a degree allows the holder to access higher salaries, and better jobs. This fact has become a critical part of the American education culture — parents, teachers, and the statistics state that going to college is a good investment. College allows you to build interpersonal skills that are valued by employers, and attain the degree which has become known to be a ticket to better career prospects. That being said, millions of people are not even reaching the point of graduation. According to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, only 58 percent of students who started college in the fall of 2012 had earned any degree six years later.
Around 19.9 million people are expected to attend college this year. For many of those students, however, reaching the finish line and attending their graduation ceremony will be out of reach. The graduation rate varies depending on the type of institution a student attends. Four-year universities typically have higher graduation rates than public schools. Community college graduation rates, for example, are significantly lower than those of other institutions: 22 percent of students at public two-year colleges received an associate degree within three years. Graduation rates can also be dependent on whether students are part of a minority. For African-American students, only 41 percent had earned a degree within six years. This is in part due to the fact that community colleges and for-profit schools — which often have “open access” policies — enroll a disproportionate amount of minority students.
The College Dropout Crisis: Where We Are
The dropout crisis is having a serious effect on both the economy, and the lives of the dropouts. Dropouts — which are making up an increasing portion of students — have often taken out loans to help finance their education. Indeed, around 69 percent of students from the Class of 2018 took out student loans. The average tuition cost has increased significantly over the last few decades — tuition at private nonprofit four-year institutions has more than doubled from $17,010 in the 1988-89 academic year to $35,830 in the 2018-19 year. Rising tuition costs have meant that students have had to borrow more money than in the past in order to pay for their education as federal aid is not going as far as it used to for students. Pell Grants and other forms of aid for low-income students would need to be doubled to maintain the same purchasing power they had in the past.
Most people that dropout of college will have taken out a student loan, but will not have the credential which will allow them to access the high salaries and better jobs that college graduates receive. The earnings of four-year college graduates exceed those of people with college experience but no degree by over 50 percent. While those with college experience do earn slightly more, they still have to repay all of the debt they have incurred. Dropouts are less likely to be able to repay their student loans because they do not have the degree that is supposed to open up new opportunities.
Graduating college can also help students repay their loans in a variety of more subtle ways. College is not just about acquiring a degree. It is one of the first steps toward becoming a full adult, and confers a variety of useful skills that help graduates become better and more productive people. Those who attend college may be more organized than those who drop out, which means they will be more likely to repay their student loans on time. These students may be better able to plan their student loan repayments, and are more likely to be aware of programs such as loan consolidation and income-driven repayment, which help borrowers repay their money on more flexible terms. Defaulting on student loans has secondary effects for dropouts, too. If a dropout defaults on their student loans, their credit score will be affected, which will make it more difficult for them to reach other milestones in life such as purchasing a home or a car.
The dropout crisis is clearly a problem. In the past, high school students, parents, and guidance counselors have not thought as much about graduation rates when choosing a college. The general sentiment was that students should pick a school whose values most aligned with their own, and who offered the best teaching experience. Further, many colleges previously did not even know what their graduation rate was. Recent improvements in technology have made it easier to track and analyze these metrics, and the rise of the student debt crisis has made the public more motivated to request information about graduation rates. The prestigious college rankings such as the U.S. News & World Report have helped put more emphasis on graduation rates by including them in their lists of “top colleges”. As more students continue to drop out of college — and are saddled with an unaffordable amount of debt — addressing the dropout crisis has become increasingly important.
Providing Textbook and Living Assistance
One way that colleges can improve their graduation rates is to offer textbook vouchers and assistance in paying for food and housing. A 2014 report by the Public Interest Research Groups found that two-thirds of students had skipped purchasing or renting some required course materials because they couldn’t afford them. Indeed, textbook costs have risen more than 1,000 percent since the 1970s. More students are struggling to cover the costs of these resources, which help students develop the knowledge they need to thrive in college and attain high grades. The number of students suffering insecurity in basic needs such as housing has also become a major problem. Estimates about the size of the problem vary from between 10 percent of students and 50 percent, but researchers agree that it has become a major barrier toward success for thousands of students attending college.
Schools that offer assistance in covering textbook costs, as well as paying for food and housing may be able to help students overcome these issues, and thus increase graduation rates. More campuses around the country are starting to offer open food pantries to their students, which offer discounted food to help them succeed. The types of campuses that offer these perks are vast — from community colleges like Bunker Hill Community College to Ivy League schools like Columbia University. These programs help tackle food insecurity and allow students to focus more on their studies, rather than where their next meal will be coming from. Many colleges are also starting to offer “book vouchers” which allow students to access additional aid to cover their textbooks and other similar resources.
Graduation rates are also influenced by the living arrangements of students. Students who live on campus tend to realize higher graduation rates. This is because students who reside on campus are fully immersed in the college environment, and are surrounded by similar students all day. When they have a problem — an issue with the school’s bureaucracy, a poorly-organized schedule, et cetera — they can turn to students and advisors who are situated in close proximity to help them. Further, students in dorm rooms are more likely to develop close connections with other students, because they are living so closely together for most of their college experience.
In some areas, housing can be unaffordable for students. The average room and board in the 2017-2019 academic year ranged from around $10,800 at four-year public schools to $12,210 at private schools. Many students cannot afford these prices for room and board, and so are more likely to move into cheaper accommodations where they will not realize the benefits of living on-campus. In addition, the push toward offering more luxury student accommodations — which are typically closer to campus — has made rent too expensive for many students to handle. Therefore, students are moving further away to more affordable housing, which usually has lower student populations. Living further away from college makes it harder for students to participate in extracurricular activities and fully embrace all that campus life has to offer, as they need to travel far to get to school.
Offering Flexibility to Students
Another way to boost graduation rates would be to create more flexible schedules that account for students’ unique conditions. Around 81 percent of part-time undergraduate students were working in 2017 in addition to attending college; 46 percent of those students were working more than 35 hours per week. In addition, 43 percent of full-time undergraduate students were working while attending college; 10 percent of those students were working more than 35 hours per week. About half of students are financially independent from their parents, and a quarter of college students even have dependents on their own.
For many students, working is almost a necessity — it allows them to pay for their housing, food, textbooks, and other costs. Schools that offer more flexible schedules can allow students to better manage their rigorous academic schedules, while still being able to attend their job. This may come in the form of offering new summer classes to help students catch up — which are becoming increasingly popular, especially for those who have missed a semester — or giving students more open times in which they can meet their professors to discuss their work.
To promote flexibility for students, colleges could also refine their offerings for college credit transfers. At present, many institutions do not accept transfer credit from certain institutions, or will not allow the same number of credits to be transferred to their new college. The result has been that students have participated in courses at other colleges, only to find out that they are not able to transfer that credit toward their degree. Almost 40 percent of first-time students transfer at least once in a six-year time frame, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Better credit transfer programs would mean that students would not have to attend a university for the full four-years in order to attain a degree. Indeed, many students are deciding to opt for local community college classes. These classes confer credits but are more affordable than traditional college, and often allow students to stay at home while studying — attending a local community college is often closer to a students’ home than a large university — which reduces their living costs. One way to achieve this goal would be for schools to create transfer partnership programs, which allow students to easily transfer their credits from certain institutions. This would mean students could benefit from the lower costs of community college, while still being able to work toward their degree. This option may also encourage students to look toward community college if they are struggling to keep up with or afford college, rather than drop out of further education altogether.
That being said, structure is still an important part of college. Colleges that want to increase their graduation rates should consider putting more pressure on students to graduate within four years — many students think of college as open-ended. This would increase the likelihood that people could continue college because they would not need to worry about accessing more financial aid or taking out a student loan to pay for additional years of college. Another way to incorporate more structure into college would be to create “degree road maps” which guide students through a course of study. These guides give students a clear indication as to the classes they need to take to graduate, and when they need to complete those classes if they want to graduate on-time. College administrators could also push students to fit in more classes in each semester if they are capable of doing more, which would make students more likely to graduate on-time.
Bethel University in northwestern Tennessee, which has a higher than average graduation rate, mandates completion of the College Orientation Experience program — designed to give students more structure. During this time, students participate in a series of courses to help them acquire the skills they need to thrive as a college student. Schools that offer courses like this one typically have higher graduation rates because students are better able to navigate being a college student. These programs cover complex topics such as overcoming academic issues and participating in campus life, and act as a support framework for students. If students are taught how to navigate failing a class early in their college experience, they will be more likely to seek support from advisors or teachers than drop-out. Orientation and student success courses also give students more information about where to go if they need help, and help them make the most of their college experience.
The Future of the College Dropout Crisis
Students — who are expected to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend college — are starting to weigh statistics such as student outcomes and graduation rates more heavily, as the price of college continues to appreciate. Students are looking for a high-quality education that will result in a degree — the key to higher salaries and better jobs in the modern workforce. Indeed, more parents, guidance counselors, and members of the public are starting to use graduation rates as a barometer of a school’s offerings. Although graduation rates can be impacted by factors such as how selective a college is — “open access” colleges typically have higher dropout rates, for example — they do provide a strong insight into the quality of an institution’s offerings.
As more students value graduation rates in their decision as to where they should go to college, schools are looking for ways to adapt their offerings to boost their graduation rates. Some of these include offering access to textbook stipends and living support, and providing students with more flexibility in their studies, which can help make the college experience more manageable for busy workers. More students are employed while attending school, and many cannot afford the mandatory textbooks and academic resources they need to succeed. The bottom line is that the definition of a college student is changing. This changing definition means that colleges need to spend more time optimizing for the specific problems these groups face — prominently, the cost of their college education — otherwise face students going to other institutions which are more affordable and flexible.