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Why Do Students Drop Out of College?

by Rachel Hicks | September 3, 2019
Why Do Students Drop Out of College?

Part three of a three-part series on how educators can meet and exceed retention goals by adapting tactics and creating a welcoming campus to better engage today’s at-risk students.

Why do students drop out of college?

College retention rates
Please click to view the full infographic.

In our last blog, we discussed the demographic shifts taking place on campuses today. Students are most likely to be working adults, people of color, and from low-income backgrounds. Further, they are more likely to be unprepared for what college entails. They work full- or part-time, care for family members, transfer between institutions, and often stop out for financial or family reasons, then re-enroll as they are able. They face a major risk of not being able to complete college because of barriers that must be addressed.

Below, we'll talk about six of the main reasons why students drop out of college.

1. Lack of affordability

One of the main reasons why students drop out of college is because it is expensive. In the last decade, the cost of going to college has climbed 56%. At the same time, family income has remained the same. State spending for higher education was drastically reduced during the recession. However, it has yet to be fully restored in most states. In some cases, it continues to be cut. State spending for higher ed is currently 16% lower than it was in 2008. As a result, colleges and universities have raised tuition, but the federal Pell grant has not kept pace. In many cases, the Pell grant does not cover the full cost of attendance. In turn, this creates a gap that students and their families struggle to fill.

To compound the problem, first-gen students face challenges in going through an uncertain and confusing financial aid process. Those who completed the FAFSA in high school often don't know that they need to refile it every year. This can lead to the loss of aid. In turn, they drop out. Further, high-income students know to file FAFSA forms early, but low-income students typically file later. This can lower the amount of aid they receive.

2. Living costs

Another reason why students drop out of college is living costs. Generally, first-gen students are aware of the tuition costs. However, they often underestimate non-tuition costs. They do not (or are unable to) borrow enough to cover living expenses and transportation costs. As a result, many low-income students struggle with meeting their basic day-to-day needs such as food and housing. Consequently, this can have an impact on their academic success. In a recent survey conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 58% percent of African Americans, 50% of Hispanics, and 39% of Caucasians reported experiencing food insecurity in the past 30 days. In addition, 60% of survey respondents at two-year colleges and 48% at four-year universities reported experiencing housing insecurity. Roughly 18% of students at two-year institutions (14% at four-year institutions) were homeless.

3. Work

Most of today’s students (85%) work while enrolled in order to pay for school and support themselves. They spend an average of 4 hours per day working. This is more than double the time they spend in class and 1.5 times more than they spend studying. Half of working students are in minimum-wage jobs such as food services and retail that offer flexible schedules but do not pay well or prepare them for a future career. About 40% of all undergrads work 30 or more hours. As a result, their studies suffer, they are unable to take advantage of on-campus support services, and their dropout rate is high. Only 22% of low-income students who work while enrolled  complete college in six years.

4. Lack of academic preparation

Lack of academic preparation is another main reason why students drop out. Low-income and first-gen students are more likely to come from low-performing high schools, are not ready to take college-level classes, and achieve lower GPAs than their high-income peers. Many struggle with basic academic skills such as writing or math and need quite a bit of academic support.

One in four students is required to enroll in non-credit bearing remedial classes in their first year of college. Of course, this increases the time to earn a degree and thus the cost. Full-time undergrads who have to take remedial courses are 74% more likely to drop out. Remediation is not limited to open-access institutions and low-income students. About half of remedial students come from middle- and upper-income families and attend public and private four-year colleges.

5. Cultural capital and “college knowledge”

Often, first-gen and low-income students report feelings of self-doubt and a lack of feeling like they belong on college campuses. In many cases, achievement gaps aren’t due to poor academic planning. Rather, they’re due to cultural challenges, especially for those whose parents did not attend college. They may struggle to navigate the jargon and higher ed lingo used in campus guides, course syllabi, and school websites. They may not know social norms, good study practices, where to find resources, or what “office hours” are. Also, many do not know that it is possible to withdraw from a class rather than fail. Yet first-gen students are typically hesitant to seek out help for fear of “outing” themselves as one who does not belong. This may sway first-gen students to drop out of college.

Low-income students may come from backgrounds in which they had little choice or control over their environments. As a result, they may be surprised that so many tasks, such as choosing courses and filling out required forms, are their own responsibility. They may also come from communities that stress interdependence, such as aiding and caring for neighbors. As a result, they may struggle to adapt to college cultures that value individualized behaviors, such as thinking independently, challenging norms, and sharing personal views.

6. Anxiety

Gen Z members were raised in a time of stress and not knowing what the future held. The Great Recession, rise of school shootings, the fall of the World Trade Center, and threats of terrorism have all shaped their worldview. Today's college students report unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. For example, a 2018 Pew survey found that 70% of teens rate anxiety and depression as a “major” problem. Further, the number of teens ages 14-17 who reported going through a major depressive episode increased by more than 60% between 2009 and 2017, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

They report a high degree of fear of failure because they know how critical a postsecondary credential is to future success in the workforce. They are stressed by student loans, high rates of tuition, and having to balance work and school. Today, two out three college students report feeling “overwhelmingly” anxious. Between 2009 and 2016, anxiety was the number one complaint at campus health centers. Anxiety can decrease how well one can focus and learn, thereby putting their grades at risk. Also, it can be rough to limit attendance in class and campus engagement. As a result, they may drop out.

More than previous students, current ones are much more likely to report feelings of isolation. Many first-gen students, particularly those at elite colleges, report feeling like guests in someone else’s house or that their college is not for people “like them.” Often, they report feeling “like a number” because their college does not care about them on a personal level. They need help to connect with their peers in order to build networks of social and informational support.

The bottom line for students is feeling like someone cares about them.

Solutions: A path forward

It makes financial sense for institutions to invest the funding necessary to support the students they have through to completion. While these services can be costly, supports are typically far less than the major revenue losses from dropouts and transfers, and less than the time and cost linked to trying to recruit transfer students.

In our work with colleges and universities over the past decade, Signal Vine has learned many best practices. What can colleges do to better serve students and increase graduation rates? Download our ebook to find out.

* Special thanks to our guest author, Alice Anne Bailey, PhD, a Higher Education Consultant.

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