College Retention Rates: At-Risk Students

by Rachel Bishop | August 20, 2019
College Retention Rates: At-Risk Students

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

Impact of decreasing college retention rates

In our last blog, we discussed the crushing financial burden that students who enroll in college but do not complete a credential face. With at least one out of every three students not completing a postsecondary degree, colleges themselves face the threat of a major loss of revenue. In turn, decreasing college retention rates inhibit their ability to serve students and maintain operating budgets. Small private institutions in particular face the risk of decreased enrollment and increased closures. Higher ed institutions must work to retain the students they have and support them to graduation. In order to do that, they must know who their students are.

Who is most at risk of not completing their degree? Almost half of all college students, and the number is growing.

Demographic shifts

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in modern American history. The number of undergrads at U.S. colleges and universities has sharply increased over the past 20 years. Making up this growth is almost entirely students of color and those from low-income families—students who are often raised by parents with little or no college experience and vague understanding of the application and enrollment processes. These students also tend to graduate from low-performing K-12 school systems that did not fully prepare them for education after high school. All students of color now make up more than 45% of the undergrad population. Students who are the first in their family to go to college now make up a third of students nationwide.

Despite these shifts, many colleges continue to operate as though they are serving full-time students who attend one institution. They have not adapted to serve today’s students, who are typically not prepared academically, working full- or part-time, caring for family members, transferring between institutions, and often stopping out for financial or family reasons, then re-enrolling as they are able.

Adult learners

Adult learners over the age of 25 now make up 40% of all college students. However, these students face some of the greatest obstacles to completing their college education. Family and financial responsibilities, work, and the lack of affordable childcare all impede adult students’ ability to focus on academics and access on-campus supports. It’s no surprise that parents with dependent children drop out of college at a higher rate than any other demographic. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 28% of full-time and a mere 5% of part-time adult students complete their degrees.

Low-income students

Increasingly, students today are divided by family income. The percentage of students from high-income families enrolled in higher education remained the same between 1996 and 2016. In contrast, the percentage from middle-income families decreased from 63% to 52%. Enrollment by low-income families increased from 12% to 20%. The problem with such a large income gap is that students from families in the highest 25 percent income bracket graduate at a rate of 60%, yet only 1% from the lowest 25 percent income bracket do. The average difference in six-year graduation rates between students who receive Pell grants and those who do not is more than 10 percentage points at public colleges and nearly 15 percentage points at private colleges.

Hispanic students

Hispanic students are enrolling in college at historic rates. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of Hispanics enrolled in higher education more than doubled. Yet, the completion gap between these two groups also increased over the same time period. Non-Hispanic whites are currently twice as likely to complete a bachelor's degree than Hispanic students, who graduate at a rate of only 50% in six years.

African American students

Black students, too, represent a larger share of the college student population than they did 20 years ago. However, they have the lowest six-year completion rates among all racial groups at just 41%. The gender gap between male and female African American students is larger than any other racial group. Nearly two-thirds of black undergraduates are female. African American males are the most likely among any demographic group to drop out after freshman year.

Continuing the discussion

What factors are driving these types of students to drop out of college while others are able to complete their degree? In our next blog, we will address the causes of student drop out.

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

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