- While more high school graduates from all segments of the population are going to college, one in five will drop out before their second year, and that rate is higher among students whose families traditionally have not attended college, a group higher education needs to attract and keep, according to a detailed account from The Hechinger Report.
- The U.S. Department of Education reports that 70% of high school graduates went directly to college in 2016 compared to 63% in 2000, however the number who return for a second year has risen very slightly at non-profit institutions. Meanwhile, about 44% of students at for-profit colleges quit before finishing. It means there are almost 3 million fewer college students than in 2011 when enrollment last peaked, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
- Dropouts cost higher education about $16.5 billion a year in lost tuition, and even more considering the investment of public money and debt students often incur. With heightened competition for a slumping number of high school graduates in the future, retention is key to survival for colleges.
Experts point to a number of reasons for the retention problem, including a lack of appropriate academic and social preparation or counseling and requirements for remedial education, which causes many students, especially those from non-traditional families, to give up. Some say a decade of debate about college value and alternatives makes it easier for students to decide to leave.
The Hechinger Report analysis showed academic struggles aren’t the issue. About 40% who leave have grade-point averages of at least 3.0, and 500,000 top-scoring high school graduates from all races and income levels never earn degrees. About a quarter report they had financial problems or worried about debt, but about 41 percent said they felt isolated and 39 percent said they didn’t think the degree was worthwhile.
Universities are using more personal interaction and technology to monitor the attitude of students so the institution can intervene before they decide to quit. Methods include a phone app that prompts students to respond to questions weekly, and using data about student behavior and grades from their ID cards to pinpoint vulnerable students. They also are using a variety of financial and college life incentives to keep students, such as Southern Utah University's special “first year experience” that provides added financial, academic and emotional support, starting at a carefully designed orientation. The university reported a rise in retention of about 10 percent.
Students who are the first in their families to attend college often struggle the most to complete their degree for a variety of reasons. After three years, about a third had quit compared to about a quarter of students whose parents have a degree, according to federal reports.
The number of Hispanic students has risen sharply, but the number who graduate after six years is still 10% below the rate for whites, and while enrollment of black students is up, their graduation rates are flat or falling. About 44% of black students and 35% of Hispanics are diverted into remedial classes at four-year colleges and significantly larger percentages at two-year institutions. They also often report the college environment is uncomfortably different for them.