Why Aren’t Graduation Rates at Colleges Near 100%?

College graduation rates in the United States have been stagnant for decades. In 2020, only 62% of students in college classrooms were graduating in six years. Only about 14% of those in college for more than six years ever graduate. This means that nearly one-third of students who start college leave without ever earning a degree.

Considering the standards in place to qualify for admission to college and the demands placed on students to successfully apply for admission, one would think that completing the degree would not be an insurmountable challenge. Obviously, it is not the intelligence of our college students that causes them to drop out.

Some students struggle with college-level work, but academic struggles are an easy fix. Most colleges provide tutoring of some kind on campus in addition to graduate assistants and the professors themselves. The help is there for struggling students if they choose to use it. Some students face financial challenges and have to work long hours to pay for tuition and living expenses. These students are at significant risk of leaving college without their degrees. Unfortunately, students in this group who complete their degrees are often saddled with crushing debt and do not enjoy the benefits of earning a college degree until many years after graduation. Still others have personal or family challenges that make it difficult to focus on their studies. Whatever the hurdles in front of college students, they should not be so high as to prevent the student from graduating. So, what reasonable expectations do we have that students admitted to college will graduate? Apparently, those expectations are low, or we would have a better success rate.

Colleges can make a number of changes to increase graduation rates. One important change is to make students aware of the academic support available to them and encourage them to use it. In addition to tutoring, how about offering supplemental instruction, or even credit recovery programs. Colleges can also make it easier for students to afford college by providing more financial aid in the form of grants, work-study programs, or scholarships.

Many colleges are doing all these things and still lose 10 to 15% of their students before graduation. No matter how progressive the programs are, if a student is not plugged into something on campus, their chances for graduating are significantly reduced. Cultivating a supportive environment with plenty of groups and areas where students can feel comfortable and accepted will minimize many potential problems. Taking steps like these and committing to a culture of continuous improvement will result in more students leaving college with their degrees in hand.

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