A recent cover image for “The New Yorker” paints a sobering picture for newly minted college grads. A solitary young man clad in a “Class of 2015” T-shirt rakes graduation caps from trees as 2016 graduates celebrate their commencement in the background. Just one year ago the man likely tossed his own cap high into the air with jubilation, dreaming of his bright future. Did he have any idea he’d struggle to find a job in his field of study and settle for a minimum-wage gig to make ends meet?
The man cleaning up campus is lucky—he got a degree. There are some 36 million Americans who started college but didn’t finish. And if they took out loans, they’re paying for a partial education that likely failed to give them the leg up in the job market that would help them pay off their debt. The massive amount of student debt in the U.S. is a huge problem for our economy, but the college completion crisis makes the situation heartbreaking. If the U.S. wants to reduce the record high $1.3 trillion in outstanding student debt, we need to help more students graduate.
As former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on multiple occasions, “The most expensive degree is the one you don’t complete.” Today more than 40 percent of student borrowers aren’t making payments on their loans. Coupled with the increasing cost of college, low completion rates drive the vicious student debt cycle.
The College Completion Crisis
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both called for improvements in college access and affordability. But even free college doesn’t help if students drop out.
“It’s not just getting to college, but it’s going to college for what?” says Elisabeth Barnett, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. “So many students arrive at college without a clear idea of where they want to go and they wander around for a while and don’t get themselves onto a pathway.”
Even as the value of a degree is being questioned loud and clear, it still holds weight in our economy today. Individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn an average annual income of $48,500, while those with only a high school diploma or equivalent make $30,000. The logic goes that those who graduate college are in a much better position to pay off their debt.
Nearly half of students who begin studying at four-year colleges and universities fail to complete their degree within six years. At community colleges, the situation is worse: Just over 30 percent of students who begin a two-year degree program complete it within three years. And while 80 percent of community college students say they aim to get a bachelor’s degree, only 14 percent of them reach that goal within six years.
The completion crisis is especially acute for minority students, first-generation students and learners from low-income families. Likelihood of graduation varies significantly with income and racial background. And guess who gets the short end of the stick?
One in five college students from the lowest-income families earns a degree by age 24, compared to 99 percent of students from the top-earning families.
Ted Gonder, co-founder and CEO of Moneythink, a Chicago-based organization focused on spreading financial education to underserved young adults, says that many of the high-school students his nonprofit works with understand how to afford college. They get that they need to fill out FAFSA forms and apply for Pell grants and other scholarships. Where they run into trouble is when they have other cash-flow issues during college. “If low-income students are using money from their scholarships to cover basic day-to-day expenses, then they end up at the end of the semester unable to cut a full check for tuition.”
When organizations like Moneythink help students understand that they can get into and afford college, they also need to have conversations with students about what it will take to stay in school, Gonder says. “Even though you can afford college, even though it is possible, let’s have a realistic and sobering conversation up front about what it’s going to take. How many hours a week are you going to have to work? How’s that going to affect your ability to study for tests and keep your scholarships? How many loans are you going to have to take out on top of that?”
A Smoother Transition
Higher-ed institutions point fingers at high schools for sending them underprepared students who drop out because they can’t keep up with coursework, but colleges and universities aren’t innocent victims. They can be doing more to help students succeed even before matriculation.
Barnett studies transitions between high school and college and leads the Community College Research Center project, “Reshaping the College Transition: A Study of Early Assessment and Curricular Interventions.” She says far too few high school seniors graduate ready for college. Oftentimes they’re placed into remedial classes that don’t count toward a degree and make them spend even more time (and loan money) on their education.
Barnett calls on high schools and higher-ed institutions to co-develop curriculum for remedial education that students can start in high school. She says community colleges, especially, should be reaching out to their feeder high schools to “have conversations about what proportion of the students coming in need some kind of remediation. And then having discussions about what can be done to reduce that number without any casting of blame, understanding that there might be issues of lack of alignment.”
Barnett points out the success Tennessee has seen in college readiness through the state’s Seamless Alignment and Integration of Learning Support program (SAILS). The program brings the state community colleges’ developmental math sequence to high school seniors in a blended-learning format. Students who pass the course can bypass remedial math and enroll directly in college-level math at any of the state’s 13 community colleges.
“There’s real involvement from the college sector,” Barnett says, explaining that each community college sends coordinators to local high schools to help high school faculty run the labs where students complete the course.
Once students are in the door, colleges and universities need to do a better job of supporting their educational journey. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchellrecently told EdSurge about exemplary work that Georgia State University has done in academic advising.
The school has analyzed 10 year’s worth of data in course-taking patterns and grades to create a set of predictive analytics that help professional advising teams keep students on track to graduate. Rather than waiting for students to fail a class or drop out, academic advisors reach out at the first sign that students are having trouble.
Georgia State increased semester-to-semester retention rates by 5 percent and reduced the time it takes for students to earn a degree by half a semester. Its graduating class of 2014 saved $10 million in tuition and fees compared to the graduates a year before. And students of all socioeconomic backgrounds are graduating at the same rate: “They’ve completely erased completion gap between low-income students and higher-income students,” Mitchell says.
When students of all socioecomic backgrounds complete their degrees at similar, higher rates, we can have faith that college will be an opportunity for economic success. If students who need the most support fail to graduate, college becomes a barrier that drives inequality. Those who take out loans and don’t finish are worse off than when they enrolled.
“We have to break that cycle for the individual; we have to break that cycle for our economic prosperity,” Mitchell says. “Most of all we have to break that cycle so that we can remind people—and it be truthful—that America is a place where, if you work hard, there will be a space in college for you and that space will be a place that will lead you to success.”