According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 20 percent of young people who begin their higher education at two-year institutions graduate within three years. There is a similar pattern in four-year institutions, where about 4 in 10 students receive a degree within six years. And these bleak statistics on national college completion rates are averages. In some institutions, the numbers are even gloomier.
This is clearly a personal disappointment for the students and their families, but increasingly, experts and leaders see it as a threat to U.S. international competitiveness and a phenomenon that perpetuates economic insecurity and inequality. In 2009, President Barack Obama set a goal for the United States to “have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” More specifically, he called for measures that would ensure that an additional 5 million Americans would complete “degrees and certificates in the next decade.”
Why do students leave school without finishing?
The question bedeviling many of those concerned about higher education and the economy is why so many college students drop out. Some 2.8 million students enroll in some form of higher education each fall, in two- and four-year programs and in public, private, online, and for-profit institutions. These young people are motivated enough to start college, and somehow they manage to find sufficient resources to enroll, but getting a college ID card, buying the books and showing up for class doesn’t mean they are poised to complete a degree. What exactly goes wrong?
Several thought-provoking studies have looked at the question in recent years and advanced many possible explanations: rising tuition costs, poor academic preparation and study skills, minimal student support and advisory services in higher education, too many young people going to college even though they really do not want to, and too many professors and advisers complaining because, as they see it, completion is the student’s responsibility. Leaders debate different ways to tackle the problem. Some want to provide more financial support and better services for students. Others focus on revamping higher education policies and programs in ways that would encourage more young people to complete a degree or certificate.
With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them asks young Americans why so many college students drop out. This study is designed to test the assumptions many of us make about college students today and why so many of them fail to graduate. It also helps to identify solutions that young people themselves say would help most. With underwriting from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Public Agenda surveyed more than 600 young adults, ages 22 to 30, who had at least some higher education coursework. We asked those who started college but did not complete a degree why they left, and we compared their views, experiences and responses with those of students who had successfully completed a two- or four-year college program. More detailed information about how we conducted the study can be found at http://www.publicagenda.org/theirwholelivesaheadofthem/methodology.
Today’s college students: Not necessarily what you expect
As background to the survey findings, it may be helpful to begin with a clearer picture of “college students” today. Many of us envision young people living in college dorms, going to school full-time, attending ball games and fraternity parties, maybe working a few hours a week or in the summer to bring in a little spare cash. In high school, perhaps, they dreamed about going to a particular school, filled out application after application and waited eagerly for the acceptance letter to arrive. The facts, though, show quite a different picture:
- Among students in four-year schools, 45 percent work more than 20 hours a week.
- Among those attending community colleges, 6 in 10 work more than 20 hours a week, and more than a quarter work more than 35 hours a week.
- Just 25 percent of students attend the sort of residential college we often envision.
- Twenty-three percent of college students have dependent children.
How should higher education respond?
Given these realities, it’s not surprising that when Public Agenda surveyed young people about what led them to leave college early—and what would help them to return and finish—we got some surprising answers. With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them offers firsthand testimony from young people about the barriers they face trying to earn a degree or credential. It is testimony that, we believe, poses a moral challenge to higher education and the country as a whole. If we truly aim to help this new group of nontraditional students fulfill their aspirations, college and university officials, state and federal policymakers, employers, foundations and other advocates trying to ramp up college completion need to take a fresh, clear-eyed look at their current assumptions and practices. The findings here reveal gaps in the higher education system that serve to undercut the efforts of students who need to work and go to school at the same time. They raise serious questions about long-standing policies that seem profoundly ill suited to students who simply cannot afford to go to school full-time for several years. They powerfully suggest the need for innovative responses that would help more young Americans continue their education, but in better-organized and more cost-effective programs. The results of this research pose a challenge.
Here is the story young people tell about themselves.
 U .S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS 2006–2007, Graduation Rate File.
 U .S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1996/01, Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.
 “Digest of Education Statistics,” Institute of Education Sciences, 2008.
 S ee, for example: Bowen, Chingos and McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, Princeton
University Press, 2009. Also: Hess and Schneider, “Diplomas and Dropouts: Which Colleges Actually Graduate Their Students (and Which Don’t),” American Enterprise Institute, June 3, 2009.
 U .S. Department of Education, 2007–
2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study; in Viany Orozco and Nancy K. Cauthen, “Work Less, Study More & Succeed: How Financial Supports Can Improve Postsecondary Success,” Demos, 2009.
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 U .S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2008, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, authors own
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