Why Can't More College Students Finish What We Ask Them to Begin?

A great imperative has been declared from the President of the United States to individual families that graduating high school students (and older potential students) should pursue post-secondary education. The president urges further education as a national interest. Families encourage further education for a better-paying job. Students have responded. The number of people enrolling in post-secondary education (including colleges, universities and community colleges) has increased, and a national goal is being addressed.

So with an increasing number of students at the post-secondary level, are we meeting our national goals to increase the percentage of the population with advanced degrees? That requires a further question: what percentage of these students is finishing their courses of study and receiving degrees?

The news is not good, according to a recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. As this chart shows, the percent of students who are completing their degree programs is decreasing (the study allows up to 6 years for a student to count as graduated).

Failure to complete is a serious problem for both the students and the country. For the students, it means that they have (likely) taken on student debt to finance the courses that they did take. If they have not been able to finish their course of study, they will be hindered when applying for jobs, since they will not be fully prepared. Shouldering debt without personal benefit then handicaps the student and adds to the national student debt problem. The country, on the other hand, misses out on a new member of society and the workforce who, if the program had been completed, would have been able to fill needs as skilled workers and as citizens prepared for significant roles in society.

Can we do anything the declining graduate rate? First we must identify major factors that contribute to this decline. Colleges and universities are under great financial pressure to get by with less. While tuition has increased in public institutions due largely to the loss in financial support from state legislatures, the net funds available to public universities have not increased to match the needs. The financial squeeze has induced compromises in our institutions of higher education, compromises that have degraded the quality of undergraduate education and the support structures for students that are crucial to student success.

In many colleges and universities, class sizes have increased dramatically. Plans for new academic buildings often include larger and larger lecture halls. Many students, if not most, easily find themselves lost in the large lecture hall, facing an impersonal approach to their education. Failure in the class can be an outcome.

Many students need disruptive advising to succeed. If they come from secondary schools less well prepared than some of their peers, they may have a higher failure rate in their classes. Student advising that is intrusive enough to uncover problems before they become impossible to manage can be crucial to student success. Often staffing of student advising does not keep up with increases in enrollment or with the numbers of students coming from the weaker secondary schools, because of lack of operating funds.

With the chaos that can result from increasing enrollments and decreasing academic budgets, supportive sequencing and timely availability of courses can falter. This will inevitably lead to increased time to graduation with increased risk for early termination of a student's educational program, as the students run out of funds.

Sometimes a student will decide on leaving school due to a change in personal or family circumstances. Where this is financial, it can be a surprisingly small funds shortage that can be the final straw leading to withdrawal from school.

Finally excellence in teaching can suffer, creating poor classroom environments for students. The sources of this problem are complex, but it nevertheless needs addressing.

How can colleges, universities and community college address these critical issues? It must start with the imperative to put students' needs first. There are a multitude of special interests in higher education that demand attention and funding. Too often, interests that are not critically important to student academic and career success get the upper hand. Even in this era of decreasing funding for colleges and universities, putting students' needs first can produce important resources that can make a difference in student success.

The epidemic of large classes must be addressed. This often requires increased numbers of teachers. And that costs money. But it is well known that packing increasing numbers of students into lecture halls does not lead to optimal educational outcomes for most students. Only a modest fraction of students can gain a high quality learning experience from large lectures or massive on-line courses, particularly in the humanities and the sciences. The majority of students will thrive if they have person-to-person interactions in their journey to new understandings; opportunities to try and fail and be supported by human beings to try again and succeed. Two-way verbal interactions can be as important as written assignments. And students cannot learn to write if they do not receive personal, direct critiques on their writing as they develop their skills. It is worth noting that such communication skills are among those most prized by employers.

Disruptive advising requires a sufficient number of highly trained advisors to match the number of students. Such advising will increase graduation rates of students but cannot succeed if the number of advisors are too few to spend significant time with each student to keep them on-track, the beneficiary of needed academic help, and with clearly articulated educational goals, created by the student and fostered by the advisors.

Careful curriculum development by the faculty, sequencing of those courses, and adequate availability of seats in the classroom are all required to support timely graduation. The latter, of course, requires significant infusion of funds, but this is the students' money we are spending and what better way to spend it than in support of the education they came to find.

Finally, for this discussion, critical funding at critical times can mean the difference between graduation and dropping out of school. For many students who are subsisting on minimal financial foundations, seemingly small changes in their lives can lead to a critical funds shortfall. If the institution stands ready to supply modest levels of emergency funding in the form of grants, a surprisingly significant difference can be made in enabling students to stay in school and complete their course of study. I have seen a few hundred dollars keep a student in school and on track for success.

If we are to meet the national goals of increasing the number and percentage of adults with advanced education, we must put students' needs first. Given the necessary tools, students do respond and return many times over the benefit to our country.