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College Drop Out Rates - Who's to Blame?

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For some students, getting accepted to a university is only the first in an uphill battle toward a degree. Persevering long enough to graduate can be just as challenging.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau revealed in 2000 that one in three Americans drops out of college. This is an increase from the 1960s when one in five discontinued his or her studies.

Some studies indicate that a considerable proportion of college dropouts come from low-income families. The U.S. Department of Education found that 41% of low-income students enrolled in a four-year institution managed to graduate within five years. For higher income students, this jumps to 66%. Of the low income students that did not return, 47% left in good academic standing.

Though research links financial difficulties to dropout rates, there are a number of factors that account for why students decide to leave school. Students tend to drop out because their expectations of college—academically, socially, or both—don’t match up with the reality once they get there. They also suffer from lack of motivation, inadequate preparation, and poor study skills.

The National Center for Education Statistics indicates that dropout rates are particularly high for African American and Hispanic students. Other student populations at greater risk of dropping out include those who are the first in their family to attend college, those who have limited English proficiency, and nontraditional students such as returning adult students.

Few students who drop out eventually finish their education. Those that do return to college usually don’t do it immediately. About 12% of the undergraduate population consists of re-entry students. These students are defined as those over the age of 25.

Many college students—especially dropouts—are burdened with debt accumulated from loans that could have been avoided or minimized by choosing other education and training options. Debt from student loans hurt those who never finish college. Most dropouts are left with big debts and mediocre job prospects.

It is estimated that 40% of college students will leave higher education without getting a degree, with 75% percent of these students leaving within their first two years of college. Freshman class attrition rates are typically greater than any other academic year and are commonly as high as 20-30%. These statistics show a need for colleges to do something about retention rates.

An alarming number of schools have no specific plan or goals in place to improve student retention and degree completion. Colleges tend to put the blame on students, rather than on themselves. College officials, when given lists of both student and institution characteristics that might affect a student’s decision to drop out, identified 13 student characteristics that they felt significantly contribute to student attrition. In contrast, respondents identified only two institution characteristics as having a significant impact on attrition. It is quite troubling that colleges are still inclined to hold students largely responsible for their retention, while dramatically minimizing the institutional role in this problem.

When a student drops out of college, everyone loses—the student, the college, and the greater society. College retention rates are important issues that impact not only colleges, but our country and its future competitiveness in the global economy.

Students’ academic readiness is a key factor in college retention. Students who are well prepared for college coursework are more likely to stay in school. Academic help alone is not enough to keep many students in school. Students also need individual support to feel connected to the campus community. Helping students succeed in the classroom is a very positive step, but if students feel isolated or feel as if they don’t fit in, they won’t stay. It’s important for colleges to offer programs and services that integrate first-year students into the social fabric of the college community, so that they feel a part of campus life from the very start of their college experience.

Some schools are establishing practices that appear to be highly effective in increasing student retention. These include social integration practices,multicultural centers, new academic advising practices, and learning support practices. Student retention is everyone’s business on a college campus and a thoroughly integrated and coordinated approach needs to be taken to assure success.

Many colleges have not yet made retention efforts a high priority. Fewer than half (47%) of all college officials responding to an ACT survey say they have established a goal for improved retention of first-year students, and only a third (33%) say they have established a goal for improved degree completion. In addition, only around half (52%) say they have an individual on staff that is responsible for coordinating retention strategies.

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Stacey over 5 years ago Stacey

The reason so many students drop out is that they should never been accepted in the first place. They were NOT college ready but the best their hs had to offer. So now society is spiraling into the toilet because they people are holding hostage billions in student loans that are not being paid back, they have low-paying jobs paying less to nothing in taxes, and basically are not contributing a thing to society.

Dr. W.Dean almost 7 years ago Dr. W.Dean

I totally, agree with statements made in the report and feel there should be some type of national conference to discuss further ideas discussed in your report. It would be very interesting if this conference could be held at one of failing schools such as Allen University. I'm a retired college professor and would more then happy to work with your group concerning a workable conference. One that does more then just have guest speakers with outstanding paper, but college representives from each of the top poor colleges. You have my E-mail lets stay in touch. Hopefu, Dr. Walter Dean

Sid over 7 years ago Sid

What if your Advisor/recruiter for the school you are about to attend, gives you answers to the placement test to get you into higher education courses that cost more money??? This happened to me. I was trying to get into Software Engineering, but didn't do so good on the timed test. And then the advisor / recruiter came and gave me answers to the other half of the test.

Allie M. over 8 years ago Allie M.

I don't completely agree with this article. I withdrew from a private four-year college five hours away from my hometown for many reasons. Poor study skills and academic performance were not to blame. I maintained at least a B-average and completed all of my assignments when asked. I did not enjoy this college because I was assigned to the worst dorm building on the entire campus, school was far too expensive even with my 11k grant; it was still at least 32k a year with my grant. My family simply could not afford it. Also, my father was given only a few years to live. He recently passed away, and I don't regret leaving to spend time with him for a second. Also, my boyfriend and I were getting serious, and I had many more opportunities at home in Maryland, where the DC/Baltimore metropolitan area were nearby. Upon returning home, I signed up for classes for the spring semester at one of the best community colleges in the country. I am majoring in Nursing. I currently take online courses for the summer.

Thomas Morse over 8 years ago Thomas Morse

These reports never mention the students that end up dropping out due to being required to take courses that have nothing to do with their majors.

Stephen Gibson over 8 years ago Stephen Gibson

I offer comments as a parent who advised his son and a teacher who advises his students. Today's world is more competitive than 50 years ago. You must be able to distinquish yourself as a capable learner. There are ways to do this... one of which is completion of a college level degree program. It is not the only way but the way most recognized by the public and society. Regretfully students are not fully informed of the expectations that colleges and universities hold for them. As the "feel good everyone wins" K-12 public education poorly prepares most for their future, they enter and frequently fail due to being ill equipped for the rigors of college. Will circumstances change I doubt it? Better options! Find mentors and be guided by them. Mentors are not teachers They are more they do more than teach... they counsel and listen as you grow

Katie Teague over 8 years ago Katie Teague

We are having to write a 6 paragrapgh report on this topic, College Dropouts and I'm using this information. :)

Terese Rainwater over 8 years ago Terese Rainwater

Would you provide the citations for two data points? In 2000, the U.S Census reported that one in three Americans dropped out of college. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that postsecondary students who are first generation and have limited English proficiency are at higher risks for dropping out.

sandy  cisneros over 8 years ago sandy cisneros

I have been going to a beauty college for 8 months with the school being under new management since then there has been so many issues that even the instructros dont last there I have been dropped from this school and dont know where to turn who do I turn too.

connie LYND almost 9 years ago connie LYND


B Guinn almost 9 years ago B Guinn

I think there are several reasons california college graduation rate s low. 1.Why go to college if you can get a job as a prison guard, phone line man,or some other skilled labor and make just as much money as most college graduates. Also in a climate of political correctness everybody has the same status. 2. Teachers and schools don't have any incentives to be good teachers. They are protected and can blame the student population rather than themselves. At least at the K-12 level it is impossible to get rid of bad teachers. Teachers pay is dependent on seniority rather than how much the students are learning in class. 3. I don't believe money is the issue, its made to be the issue. There are student loans, and work studies. I think California schools just don't care enough.

Leah almost 9 years ago Leah

Thanks for citing your sources. I cannot believe how many blog posts don't think it is necessary anymore. You have a well written argument too!

anon about 9 years ago anon

I went to UC Berkeley with grossly unrealistic expectations both academically and socially, and absoultely hated it. I technically was passing but it would have taken 5+ years to graduate and even then not in my desired major. Taking more than 4 years was absolutely unacceptable to me, especially as the job placement rates weren't that gerat. I transferred to community college, then transferred again to a CSU, got a job within a week of graduation, and am making more than most of my UC berkeley classmates. Saved about 30-40 grand in the process. Am I one of the dropouts included in this article?

A. over 9 years ago A.

A friend of mine was hard core military woman (Air Force) who had joined straight out of High School. She was Native American and she thought the best way to explore the world outside the reservation was to join the service, so that is what she did. She performed two tours of duty, however, because she wanted to attend college also, she opted out of a third tour, and instead enrolled at the local University where her husband was stationed ( he was military too). Well her adviser (whom she was not allowed to change) signed her up for Junior Level classes her first semester dismissing her reservations about taking advanced level classes with "you should handle it fine with your military expertise." Midway through the semester my friend was failing most of her classes. This of course was unacceptable to her, and she immediately sought assistance. She was told that she was not eligible to attend University tutoring since she was not a disadvantaged student monetarily and would have to pay top $ to retain a private tutor. While trying to figure out what services her University DID offer to help students to succeed, she encountered plenty of indifferent support staff. One administrator told her that she should not concern herself over her situation; "75% of our freshmen drop out, so don't worry. The University is not for everyone." As we all figured out about this school is that they really didn't give a damn about student retention. They would have plenty of incoming freshmen to fleece the next year. Another friend of mine went to a prestigious engineering school for two years to find the scholarship he was relying upon did not extend to his Junior and Senior years. The school, despite the fact he was in excellent standing, declined to assist him in receiving further aid. He had no choice but to drop out and continue his education at the local state school. Both of my friends were dedicated hard working people and yet they were both screwed by the institutions of higher learning, that were supposedly there to help them achieve success. Like everything else, education is bought and sold nothing more nothing less.

Ian about 10 years ago Ian

As a recent college drop-out myself, two things stand as a commonality among all of the drop-outs I meet (as I have learned we tend to congregate, especially those of us who are un(or under)employed. The two reasons: 1. Finance, this is a big one, especially for some of the over 20's I know who don't have they're parents to fall back on. 2. This is harder to summarize. It seems like my generation (born in the eighties) were lied to about what college really is and what it gives you. I was in school for 2 years taking 15-18 credits and had a more than adequate GPA. I was moving quick being the point. Wouldn't you say after two years in an educational institution studying a concrete topic (Computer Science, liberal arts Majors are another issue) that I should have had at least ONE marketable skill. Shouldn't I be able to do SOMETHING without a text book and a professor. I know you may be thinking "well you didn't apply yourself hard enough", but as the person teaching the rest of the class on coding a lot of the time, I could have replaced my teacher with a laser pointer and his collection of powerpoints. School isn't what it used to be especially for a lot of the baby boomers who will judge me for leaving. Ask any student in school whether college is anything like their parents or teachers or the media presented. I highly recommend the film Declining By Degrees:High Education at risk http://www.decliningbydegrees.org/ but unfortunately this film only grazes the surface of the issue, to really understand you have to talk people who have made the decision like I have.

Ben over 10 years ago Ben

I look at TV shows like "College Life" from MTV that glorify and promote the party culture. Students, especially freshmen, imitate this lifestyle which is far from a productive college student. While universities want high graduation rates, I don't think it is their responsibility to make it happen, especially if they lower the requirements to graduate. They should do the most they can to provide the resources for success such as free classes to learn good study habits or provide a tutoring service. I still think ultimately the majority of responsibility lies with the student. While a more educated society is a good thing, I think higher education is the crucible to derive which people are of the quality to hold the jobs of responsibility in society.

Randy almost 11 years ago Randy

I liked the article and will agree. I liked the commit even better. One thing is missing I think, The STUDENT. You can attract them all day long but if they are not ready to be there, you are only repeating the same situation. We need to help develop the student before they reach college. We need to find a place where they can mature, grow, become responsible, then tackle the demands of college. A place where they can make friends, earn money and college funds. You will know the place by its name. Thank you.

Luis V about 11 years ago Luis V

As I read your article, in my mind I too was looking for reasons college students drop out. In fact, that is the reason I was reading it. As I read toward the end of your piece, you struck a good question. What are colleges doing to decrease this rate? I was aware of the high dropout rate, and I too believed students were to blame, for those many reasons you stated, but I never asked what these institutions of higher learning were doing about it. I’m a high school teacher, and often college education and its importance is discussed in the classroom. And I agree that most secondary schools, especially public ones (in California) do a poor job at preparing our students for college. But these institutions should follow the examples of big businesses (such as phone companies, insurance companies, cable companies, etc.). They invest great amounts of money, time and research in attracting new clients/customers, but they also spend almost as much in client/customer retention. Shouldn’t colleges and universities too have a similar program? They are, after all, a business. They, like these students, have a great deal to gain if they stay in college and graduate. It is a win-win situation in the long run. Thank you for your article. Luis V