Retaining college students: new research

College dropouts – and the majority of students in the U.S. will drop out – say that more-immediate financial and scheduling commitments outweighed the investment that attending college represents. The solutions appear obvious but require a financial investment in equal opportunity.

A group called Public Agenda has recently released a study of former students. (The New York Times has an article here.) The researchers found that dropouts’ main obstacles were insufficient money and time. To wit, many students were working full-time or nearly full-time to support themselves and perhaps family members, including their children.

So what is the solution? When given a list of twelve potential changes, the dropouts preferred those that directly addressed these issues. Their top five changes included three related to finances: lowering tuition and fees and increasing aid. The remaining two addressed scheduling: daycare on campus and classes at night and on weekends. This makes sense to me.

Yet Hilary Pennington, from the Gates Foundation, commented in the Times article, “We need a system where, if someone is struggling, if professors notice that somebody is missing a lot of classes, … they immediately go to student-life services, and someone reaches out.”

Until recently I taught at a college where this was the expectation, which I tried to fulfill. Unfortunately, my experience was that it rarely, if ever, worked. Most students did not answer my messages. Those who did respond might come to class another time or two. But the only successes that I can remember resulted from students receiving additional grants (not loans) or a job on campus. That crisis-management approach cannot work for the sixty percent or more who drop out.

If we, as a country, are committed to equal opportunity through education, the answer seems apparent: Make college easy to attend aside from academic expectations. That is, gaining admission and mastering academic outcomes should be the main challenges that a student confronts. Drastically reducing tuition and fees, providing inexpensive childcare and healthcare on campus, and scheduling classes at times that students find convenient might significantly boost the chances of deserving students who do not currently have the advantages that many of us enjoyed as we struggled to graduate.


4 responses to “Retaining college students: new research

  1. Honestly, are you suggesting we try to capitalize on our countries full intellectual potential? Heathen!

    This semester I had more than one student who cried over the phone or in my office over the phone about the lack of financial support that crushed their college dream. Existing on Top Ramen, scraping together the money for the bus fare to school, losing a job as another restaurant folds and so their rent money doesn’t help students fulfill their potential nor us capitalize on this intellectual resource.


    • I recommend reading the original report. Students who graduated had a considerably different list of preferred changes. Since the decision-makers in higher ed have college degrees, they might not understand the pressures facing dropouts.


  2. Read the report. Good stuff. Will print out and take to work to discuss further. Thanks.


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