Complete College America, a nonprofit student advocacy group, reports alarming statistics about degree completion rates in the United States. For example, “more than 70% of our young people start some kind of advanced training or education within two years of receiving their high school diplomas,” but that doesn’t mean they complete their education:
- “Just over half of students who start 4-year bachelor’s degree programs full-time finish – in six years. “
- “Fewer than three out of ten students who start at community colleges full-time graduate with an associate degree in three years. “
The result, widely trumpeted in the media over the past few months, is that the United States, once leader among nations in the number of college graduates it produced, has fallen significantly behind and now ranks below 14 other nations.
What’s going on here? Sifting through the slew of articles, studies, and op-eds about the decline in college completion rates, three main causes stand out:
- Cost: There’s no way around it: the current financial situation in the United States is the single largest causal factor in the drop in degree completion. Even when schools can justify every single rise in tuition and fees (due to increased costs of running the college), the ability of students to manage the cost of college has declined considerably, as incomes have not kept pace with rising prices of everything from food to utilities. Students try to manage both jobs and their academics, but the result all too often is that they simply cannot manage the two. Public Agenda refers to this as Reality #1: Most students leave college because the stress of work and study just becomes too difficult. They do not have the resources that many assume they have, which Public Agenda cites as Reality #2: Young people who fail to finish college are often going it alone financially. All of this shows that college students, both traditional and non-traditional, are seriously hampered in their education goals by economic instability.
- Lack of Preparation/Skills: It’s very frustrating to me that so few studies note the impediments to college completion that are created by inadequate K-12 education. That’s why I was relieved when the 2011 “Pathways to Prosperity” study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that “not being prepared for the rigors of academic work” was a significant reason why many students drop out of college. I-and probably most other educators-have known this for years on a student-to-student basis, and the accumulation of these sad stories, in which a hopeful and determined student is waylaid by his or her own academic gaps and shortcomings, has revealed the larger picture.
- Competing Personal and Emotional Commitments: Among traditional students, the age-old struggle against homesickness if it’s their first time away from home, the inexperience with managing their new independence, and the sudden onset of many relationship opportunities can be serious distractions from the demands of academic work. Last spring, one of my students freely admitted to me that she had spent so much time partying at her big state university that her parents refused to pay for anything other than the more affordable local community college, until she changed her attitude and raised her grades. The situation is only slightly different for non-traditional students, who may struggle to balance family commitments, such as child care, while also trying to manage the guilt that comes along with any time away from their families.
As the many studies have shown, cost is very clearly the most common cause of high college drop-out rates, though in my experience under-preparation will cause even the most financially affluent and stable students to drop out. K-12 educators have been saddled for too long with the ineffective No Child Left Behind federal education policy, which has tethered teachers and students alike to testing outcomes rather than other more meaningful forms of academic measurement. This means that by the time they get to me in college courses, students are so far behind in skills that cannot be measured in standardized tests, such as critical thinking and writing, that they are immediately unable to handle basic college level assignments.
Instead of assigning blame, I just want these problems eliminated so that I don’t have to face the tears of a frustrated student begging me for a passing grade when he or she can’t even read the assigned materials, let alone pass exams or write college-level papers. How can we fix this situation? There are a few schools attempting to do just that:
- Long Beach City College in California has started to do away with developmental or remedial courses. According to research by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, “up to one-third of students assigned to remedial courses through placement tests are improperly assigned, and that high school transcripts are a better indicator of college readiness.” Based on this data, LBCC wants to help students stay in college by taking them out of uninspiring developmental courses and putting them right into intro level courses. As Paul Bradley reported in Community College Week, “the idea is to start students at a higher level and boost their chances at success by preventing them from languishing in developmental education classes. Hispanics and blacks, who are disproportionately assigned to developmental education classes, are expected to benefit from the initiative.”
- MassBay Community College in Massachusetts, where I teach History courses, will soon eliminate the application fee. It was $20.00, which some may consider a small amount, but it adds to the cumulative college costs and may present challenges for very poor students who are already struggling on a limited budget.
- The University of Charleston in West Virginia has cut tuition by 22% in order to raise its enrollment. This is a great boon to students, who may be more able to afford the slightly lower tuition.
- The University of Texas has adopted new measures aimed at keeping students enrolled and on target for graduation, such as requiring all first-year students to live on campus. Though there have not been any significant financial changes, the university hopes that smaller changes, especially those that address problems students have facing the aforementioned personal and emotional challenges, will help the many students who get distracted from their college goals.
- The City College of San Francisco and nine other Bay Area schools are piloting an iPhone app called GradGuru that helps students keep track of their due dates, plot program and course completion, and use study aids, all aimed at boosting the kind of college success that leads to graduation. The study is not over, but interested students can download the app in iTunes.
These are all very creative, multi-dimensional possible solutions to removing the impediments to degree completion that result in low college graduation rates. However: the most important thing, the thing that really matters, is the financial pressure that students are under, which forces them to try and work full-time while going to school. Until we have a massive economic overhaul, I’m afraid that no matter how well-intentioned, efforts that do not address the financial aspect of college completion will be ineffective.