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September 27, 2011 7:07 PM College Completion: Time or Money?

By Daniel Luzer

It turns out college dropout rates are staying pretty much the same across America. According to an article by Tamar Lewin in the New York Times:

Despite decades of steadily climbing enrollment rates, the percentage of students making it to the finish line is barely budging.
The numbers are stark: In Texas, for example, of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.
Similarly, in Utah, for 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 71 chose a community college, 45 enrolling full time and 26 part time; after four years, only 14 of the full-time students and one of the part-time students graduated. Of the 29 who started at a four-year college, only 13 got their degree within eight years. Because of gaps in federal statistics, students who enroll part time, or transfer have been nearly invisible, said Stan Jones, the president of Complete College America [the group that issued the report].

It’s not so much that Americans didn’t know this. Virtually everyone involved with higher education bemoans low completion rates. What’s interesting about this study is that it turns out significant numbers of students aren’t counted in the dropout numbers. Graduation rate generally only applies to students who attend full-time. According to the report, some 40 percent of college students attend school part-time.

Only 60 percent of full-time college students earn a bachelor’s degree in 8 years. Only 26 percent of part-time college students, however, earn a bachelor’s degree in 8 year

Part of the trouble is time. Echoing the sentiments expressed by Jamie Merisotis and Stan Jones in this magazine a year ago, Complete College America says the main barrier to successful completion, particularly among part-time students, is time. If students have too much time to complete classes, if they have to take courses for many semesters, they just won’t finish. As the report says, “today’s students need new, shorter, and faster pathways to degrees and certificates of value.” Life will intervene without better pathways.

Complete College recommends other changes, including reducing the number of credit hours students need to take and reforming college remediation programs so that students who need extra help can receive it as part of their normal, credit-bearing courses, but it all essentially centers around the time needed to complete a degree.

It’s unclear, however, that taking the steps the report recommends will do much to improve college completion.

That’s because Complete College ignores a really important factor in college completion. The primary reason students leave college is financial. People don’t drop out of college because it’s too hard; they drop out of college because it’s too expensive.

No doubt some of the issues with time, particularly reducing the number of credits needed for graduation, would help address cost but currently many, many states are facing financial problems and forcing state universities to hike tuition. Higher tuition is a great way to increase the dropout rate.

Read the report here .

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer