Too Few College Students Graduate; Too Few Graduate on Time

Posted By Terri Williams on April 25, 2017 at 7:32 am
Too Few College Students Graduate; Too Few Graduate on Time

Roughly 2.1 million high school graduates enroll in an institution of higher education each year. College campuses are bustling with students and classes. Sounds good, right? But according to a report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on the high school class of 2004, things aren’t so good: Too few college students graduate, too few of the ones who do graduate on time.

Consider these findings from the report:

  • 68% of high school grads enroll in college within a few months.
  • 85% eventually spend some time in college.

And the not-so-encouraging numbers:

  • Only 60% of college students in the study earned a bachelor’s degree.
  • It took them, on average, almost six years to graduate.
  • Only 29% of students who start a certificate or associate degree program at a two-year college earn the certificate or degree within three years.
  • 20% of American adults have earned some college credit but no degree or credential.

So, why don’t college students graduate or graduate on time?

Reasons why few college students graduate

Academic unpreparedness

Unfortunately, graduation from high school does not necessarily indicate that a student is equipped to handle college-level work. According to the AAAS, half of college students require remedial courses.

The Hechinger Report analyzed 911 colleges in 44 states and found that 96 percent of both two- and four-year colleges enroll students who need to take remedial courses. And the report notes that this number might even be higher – some states don’t include data for part-time and returning students.

However, among students who expend money and time on remedial English or math classes, many don’t graduate – in fact, according to Complete College America, 25 percent of those at four-year schools, and 40 percent of those at community colleges never even complete these gateway courses and move on to college-level classes.

Family background

A student’s family background affects college attendance and whether that student graduates. In the AAAS report, approximately 81% of high school graduates from high-income families immediately enrolled in college, compared with only 52% of students from low-income families. (Research reveals that compared with their wealthier peers, students from low-income families are also less likely to graduate from high-school or take college entrance exams.) Also, 40% of low-income college students never show up for class in the fall – after they’ve been accepted in the spring.

Many tend to be first-generation college students, who often struggle to navigate the college application, financial aid and enrollment processes. Many also have family obligations, requiring them to work to support the family or stay at home to help to care for their younger siblings or elderly relatives.

And, if just being a college student isn’t demanding enough, consider the challenges of college students with children – who typically work while trying to balance parenthood and classes.

A lack of information

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, believes a lack of information or clearly outlined choices also can affect persistence and graduation rates. “There’s not much guidance in high school and certainly not in college, and there is very little information on education and career pathways,” Carnevale tells GoodCall®.

“To remain competitive, most colleges want to provide all of the programs that students like, so there’s actually an embarrassment of choices,” he says, adding that there often is little clarity regarding learning. “When 60% of the courses are not in your major and aren’t relevant, this sort of cafeteria-style offering causes people to get lost in the maze of classes, and they end up not finishing.”

However, he says that even when the information is available, students need help interpreting it. “The federal government has spent $800 million dollars working on the data, but we need counselors who can help students understand it.” College students often second-guess their school and career choices, and an understanding of the data could help them avoid buyer’s remorse.

College is increasingly becoming unaffordable for many students. “The system was built for rich kids in the 20th century,” Carnevale explains. “College used to be viewed as a finishing school for rich kids, but now it’s a necessity.” But at the same time as a degree or some type of higher-ed credential has become an employment condition with most companies, the rising college tuition and fees make student loans a requirement for many students.

As higher-education activist Sara Goldrick-Rab explains, the U.S. must address roadblocks to paying for college, which include issues with Pell Grants, the work vs. study dilemma, and the limitations of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

All of this may sound incredibly depressing, but Carnevale believes that it will get better. “Most people understand that the biggest problem is not getting kids to college but getting them out and getting them jobs, and I believe we’re in the very early years of building out a system that will work.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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