Why Aren’t Students Finishing College? Understanding and Addressing the College Completion Crisis

Why Aren’t Students Finishing College? Understanding and Addressing the College Completion Crisis

Although college readiness continues to be a central goal of K-12 education policy, alarm bells are ringing about a growing “college completion crisis” among American students.

In a 2019 opinion piece for The New York Times, David Leonhardt and Sahil Chinoy noted that “about 1 in 3 students who enroll in college never earn a degree.” After characterizing the college dropout rate as “a major contributor to American inequality,” the duo asserted that students who do well in high school and enroll in higher education only to leave without a college degree are far more likely to struggle financially and socially. Building upon their assertion that completing a higher education is about much more than just “book learning or the development of tangible skills,” Leonhardt and Chinoy contended that the social networks built by college graduates propel these individuals toward more stable, robust outcomes on both personal and societal levels.

Dropping out, debt, and inequality

Writing for online education news and advocacy site The 74 Million, Kevin Mahnken noted that although “the proportion of high-school graduates who immediately matriculate to college has risen substantially in recent decades,” just 40% of students who enter a four-year institution actually graduate on time. He then went on to connect the high rate of college incompletion (which, like Leonhardt and Chinoy, he placed at approximately 33%) to the problem of excessive student debt. After all, graduating from college with both a degree and student debt is one thing; dropping out of college with debt but no degree is another thing altogether. 

This adds weight to another problem touched upon by Mahnken: persistent inequality. Although people often expect higher education to “remedy social divisions” among students, Mahnken contended that inequalities “cleave American education” at all levels and have proven hard to shake despite more students having access to college.

So, how can the college completion crisis be better understood—and, hopefully, addressed? Mahnken, Leonhardt, and Chinoy presented a couple of possible solutions:

1. Put a spotlight on college graduation rates 

According to Leonhardt and Chinoy, “for too long, high-school students, parents, and guidance counselors have hardly thought about graduation rates when choosing a college.” In other words, the dream of getting more students through high school and into college appears to have overshadowed considerations about what will—or should—happen once these students are enrolled at institutes of higher education.

However, the New York Times contributors contended that incorporating available college graduation data into the admissions process and guiding students accordingly could help increase completion rates. After years of seeing their “hard-working, talented graduates struggle in college,” administrators at the Los Angeles-based Alliance charter school network are doing just that for their students—the majority of whom are students of color.

2. Drill down into the impact of inequality

In his article on income inequality and its connection to college graduation rates, Mahnken noted that “over half of all college students who matriculated from low-poverty schools graduate within six years of their enrollment, compared with just 21% of those who graduated from high-poverty schools,” and Melissa Fries of the Making Waves Foundation provided a more thorough examination of this troubling finding in a 2019 opinion piece she penned for online education site The Hechinger Report. 

Fries, who works as a college access issues specialist for the foundation, noted the importance of understanding how income inequality acts as a barrier to college completion before putting forward the following suggestions for how to tackle the problem:

  • Teach students financial management and budgeting skills in high school to better equip them for the money issues that may arise during their higher education

  • Guide students toward realistic college options by pointing out schools that offer viable academic outcomes with a smaller potential debt load

  • Make financial management skills an ongoing part of higher education by providing continued access to guidance on money, debt, and budgeting after students enter college

In addition, Fries encouraged teachers, parents, and guidance counselors to work with college-bound high-school students on their executive functioning skills. As the costs of college and student loans quickly add up, having the ability to manage one's time, money, and schedule could be pivotal in terms of staying on track and moving forward. Indeed, Leonhardt and Chinoy observed that students “tend to do better” when they are given a structured path to graduation that will help set them up for financial and social postgraduate success.

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