Most students apply to university with the intention of finishing. But rarely discussed in the frenzy around the admissions process at this time of year is the large number of university students who drop out with some credits but no degree.
In the United States, fewer than 40 per cent of students enrolling for the first time at a four-year university graduate in four years. Even allowing an extra two years for changed majors or time off for illness or family circumstances, fewer than two-thirds graduate within six years.
The national debates over higher education – on how much the government should subsidise tuition and how much debt students should take on – largely centre on the outcome of the university degree in the economy. But if students never complete a degree, the fact that they went to university is largely irrelevant. You rarely see a job ad ask for university credits over a degree. It’s getting across the finish line that matters.
And while the United States has done an admirable job over the last three decades expanding access to higher education – nearly 70 per cent of high school seniors enrol in university three months after graduating – the nation hasn’t quite figured out how to get them to complete a degree.
Higher education researchers and economists have long been interested in why students who can get a high school diploma can’t finish a university degree.
Studies have attempted to work out whether it’s the student that makes the institution or the institution that makes the student when it comes to graduating.
It’s a combination, of course, but an academic study published recently in the Journal of Labour Economics finds that university selection matters more than we might think, particularly when it comes to academically marginal students. The study, by Joshua Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board, tracked thousands of high school graduates over six years in the US state of Georgia, where the state’s public universities have hard cutoffs for test scores that are well known to high school students.
At the time of the study, the state’s four-year universities required that SAT-takers score at least 830 to be admitted (the maximum SAT score in 2017 was 1600). Students who don’t reach that score go to a two-year college, or not at all.
According to the study, about half of the students who scored above the cut-off completed a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with just 17 per cent who barely missed the cutoff.
“Our estimates reject the hypothesis that low-skilled students should be discouraged from choosing four-year universities because they are incapable of completing degrees at such institutions,” said the authors.
Often, students who are told they can’t hack it at a four-year campus are encouraged to go to a community college. But the study found that few of the marginal students who ended up getting a bachelor’s would have completed their two-year degree if denied access to a four-year university. That finding adds to other research that shows students who “undermatch” – those who choose not to attend the best university they can get into – harm their overall chances of graduating on time or at all.
Does this mean that students who can’t get in to a four-year university shouldn’t consider a two-year school? Not necessarily. But it’s important for students who start at a community college to ask about completion and transfer rates.
Data recently released by the Education Department show that community colleges are doing a better job at getting their students to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year university than previously thought.
For years, the federal government’s way of working out graduation rates failed to count many community college students. That measure, based mostly on students who attend full-time and don’t transfer, found just 20 per cent of community college students graduated from the college where they started within three years.
By tweaking the way it calculates graduation rates to include those who study part time and eventually earn a degree at a four-year university, the Education Department has found that some 60 per cent of community college students graduate or transfer within eight years.
While that is an improvement over what was known previously, 60 per cent is nothing to celebrate.
The pipeline from high school to university graduation is full of leaks. Students and parents in the middle of the university search shouldn’t assume students will earn a degree no matter where they go to school.
Students drop out of university for many reasons, but the campus itself plays a much more critical role than many students and parents consider when choosing which university to go to.