More students than ever are going to college, but very few of them finish.
Among community-college students, just 1 in 5 earn an associate's degree within three years. At four-year institutions, the completion rate hovers around 40 percent.
Much of the policy discussion today focuses on student-loan and tuition reform, but among students who drop out, more than a third say that even if tuition and books were completely covered, they would be unlikely to go back to school. The main reason: work and family needs.
This is one finding from a new report from Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The undertaking surveyed young people – both those who earned a degree and those who started college but didn't finish – to try to determine what factors contribute to the low college graduation rate.
It comes at a time when policymakers are increasingly focused on the importance to the economy of having college graduates. President Obama has set a goal to once again make America first in the world in the percentage of adults with college degrees.
"Getting a credential beyond high school has become the new requirement for entrance to the middle class in America," says Hilary Pennington, director of postsecondary success for the Gates Foundation. "But most Americans believe a couple of things about college that aren't true: that if you start college, you're likely to finish it, and that access to college is the great equalizer."
In fact, she notes, children of higher-income parents are both two times more likely to go to college and five times more likely to finish than those from low-income families.
Part of the problem, says Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda and one of the authors of the report, is that people's idea of who college students are is at odds with the reality. While many Americans conjure up an image of 18- or 19-year-olds attending classes full time and living in a dorm, that is true for only about a quarter of college students. About 45 percent of students at four-year schools work more than 20 hours a week, and the number rises to 60 percent at community colleges. Also, 23 percent of college students have dependent children.
The No. 1 reason that students in the survey cited for dropping out was that they needed to go to work and school at the same time. Fifty-four percent cited the need to work as the major reason they left school. The second most common reason, chosen by 30 percent, was the inability to afford the tuition and fees.
Most of those who left say that the need to work or family commitments are primarily why they haven't returned.
That's the case for Frankie Barria, a young New Yorker who participated in a Public Agenda call with reporters. He described the work pressures that led to him dropping out of the City University of New York after three years, and then out of two other schools when he tried – and failed – to return to earn a degree.
"It was just too much to pay for school and to pay rent and pay bills," Mr. Barria said. "I was forced at 19 to become an adult."
When students were asked which solutions would most have helped them stay in school, the vast majority of those who dropped out favored making financial aid available to part-time students and offering more evening, weekend, and summer courses. They also wanted day care available – as well as more student loans. Another solution they cited was cutting college costs by 25 percent.
One of the most untapped areas for help may be looking to higher-education institutions themselves to adapt to the needs of their students, says Ms. Johnson.
"They need to start thinking about the fact that they have students in different circumstances, and how they need to change and accommodate what the reality is for a lot of students," says Johnson.
She cites one college that instituted an early-alert system in which signs that a student was struggling were flagged. College officials reached out to such a student to try to help him or her manage outside pressures.
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