Get in, show up, drop out
Trying to learn why so many college students fail to graduate
For years, universities have known that one freshman does not a graduate make. Yet the focus of policymakers and teachers throughout the education pipeline has been to get students accepted to college. An admirable goal, experts say, but one that may be fruitless, even detrimental, unless students finish with a degree.
The numbers are stark. Only 63 percent of all students entering four-year colleges have their degrees within six years, according to government statistics. Rates for black and Hispanic students are less than 50 percent, and the gap between minority and white students is growing. It is these disturbing trends that have prompted William Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and one of the nation's foremost education researchers, to announce a major research initiative into the subject last week in a speech to the Goldman Sachs Foundation. "We need to understand with greater precision what happens to these students along the way in their academic careers that makes them drop out," says Bowen, whose previous studies on affirmative action, collegiate athletics, and socioeconomic diversity in admissions have been influential in higher education.
Behind South Korea. Motivating the project, which will most likely focus on 20 large public universities, are several worrying--and not unrelated--trends: the growing inequities of higher education, especially between students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, and the lagging competitiveness of the nation. In 2003, just 39 percent of American adults ages 25 to 34 had a degree, compared with 53 percent in Canada, 52 percent in Japan, and 47 percent in South Korea. Couple that with the fact that 100 new universities will break ground in China in the next decade, and the need for action is clear, Bowen says.
The ramifications for students who fail to obtain a degree are serious. College graduates earn far more than non-graduates over their lifetimes. And students who attend college, incur debt, and fail to emerge with a degree can be worse off than when they applied in the first place.
While family income, financial aid, and the education level of one's parents have been contributing factors, the underlying causes--and possible solutions--are far from evident. Most frustrating, researchers say, is the lack of usable data on who actually drops out of college and why. "Colleges have long felt that they are not responsible for tracking completion rates and dealing with the issue," says Yolanda Kodrzycki, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who has studied regional variations in minority completion rates. But the answers won't be readily apparent. Researchers typically must track students over six years to get good data.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.