The college dropout problem is bigger than you think | WHAT IF?

The college dropout problem is bigger than you think | WHAT IF?

October 28, 2019 32 By Stanley Isaacs


Frederick Hess: Today it’s common to hear stories
of innovators and wiz kids who made it big after dropping out of college. The success of these individuals might lead
some to believe that dropping out isn’t a big problem– but for many, it is. Lanae Erickson Hatalsky: Too many students invest their time and money pursuing a degree they never finish, and they frequently wind up worse off than
if they’d never gone to college in the first place. Dropping out creates large costs for students—and
for taxpayers. For students, costs are often in the form
of student debt and lost time. For taxpayers, costs are wasted public subsidies
and forgone tax revenue. Some estimates show that the total costs of
non-completion impose a half-trillion dollar drag on the economy each year. Frederick Hess: And yet, we need to be careful about
how we help more students finish college. Often, top-down reforms can lead to unfortunate
consequences. This got us thinking: What if educators and
policymakers focused on practical ways to encourage college completion? Mesmin Destin: So what do we mean by “college completion”? A simple answer might be graduating. While a student can graduate after any length
of time – so long as a student earns a degree – in the research, most studies count “completing”
as finishing a four-year degree within six in the research, most studies count “completing”
as finishing a four-year degree within six years. This is already longer than the traditional
four years you might expect a degree program to take. It’s only the students that take longer
than six years – even if they graduate later on – who are usually counted as non-completers. Bridget Terry Long: Today, only about half of students who begin college complete their degree, and completion can greatly vary by the type of college, program length, and sector. Non-profit four-year universities typically graduate more of their students than two-year community colleges
and for-profit universities. But the variance isn’t only caused the type
of college. It’s also influenced by the characteristics
of the students who attend them. Matt Chingos: As you might expect, some types of
students are more likely to complete college than others. Wealthy students, and those that do well on
standardized tests, typically have higher college completion rates. But you might be surprised to hear that high
school grades are an even stronger predictor of college success. Earning good grades requires consistent behavior
over time – such as turning in homework, showing up for class, and taking quizzes. Developing these habits in high school ends
up helping students throughout college. But higher ed institutions also play a role
in helping students graduate. Kim Clark: Several practices appear to help improve
a student’s chance at completing college. Some schools offer targeted completion grants
to juniors and seniors with unmet financial need. These grants can help students overcome stumbling
blocks posed by emergency car repairs or textbook costs. They aren’t silver bullet solutions, but
college administrators would do well to examine programs like these at their own schools. Mesmin Destin: Administrators should also think about
the way that students actually experience college-level programs or initiatives, since
they can play a large role in improving completion rates. A growing body of research tells us that some
college practices and initiatives can lead students to feel like they are not supported, or they don’t belong at college in the first place. With that in mind, college completion programs
can be counterproductive if they send students the wrong messages. Instead, university administrators should
rethink their efforts by evaluating how programs might affect a student’s motives, mindsets,
and other psychological factors. Kim Clark: Some colleges already invest in wrap-around,
holistic support programs. One program serving 8,300 students provides
extra support with financial aid, academics, and advising. While these programs can be costly to run initially, linking students’ motives with academic and financial support can improve college
outcomes – and reduce costs in the long run. Matt Chingos: But even before college, we know
that there are concrete steps that high schools can take to help prepare students to be college-ready. Imagine you’re an eighth-grader struggling
with math. Surprisingly, you’d be more likely to succeed
in high school and go to college by enrolling in a more rigorous math class, not an easier
one. Another carefully designed study found
that students who took a “double-dose” of algebra in high school were more likely to enroll in college. These examples suggest that providing students
greater access to advanced coursework can improve academic preparation, helping develop
good study habits needed to complete college. Bridget Terry Long: So, there are a lot of ways we can affect college completion rates. But what could go wrong? Well, actually a lot. Policymakers ought to take extra caution to
ensure that they don’t accidentally encourage colleges to “game the system.” In the past, a single-minded focus on test
scores has led to corner-cutting and manipulation in K through 12 education. In higher education, some colleges already operate
as diploma-mills, churning out watered-down credentials with little labor market value. Creating more of these programs is not what
anyone intends when thinking about increasing college completion. Frederick Hess: As a final caveat, note that we’re not suggesting that anyone should expect they’ll just be handed a degree for going to college. College-goers first need to put in the requisite
time and work needed to earn that diploma. Lanae Erickson Hatalsky: But for those students, we know that both colleges and high schools can do more to help them get to a degree. Now is the time for families, educators, and
policymakers to get serious about the large dropout problem at American colleges. Frederick Hess: To learn more about college completion, check out the link to the college completion page at AEI.org. Also, let us know what other topics you’d like AEI scholars to cover on “What If?”, and be sure to subscribe for more videos and research from AEI.