College and University Blog

College Drop Out Rates - Who's to Blame?

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.