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 surpass retention goals by adapting tactics and creating a welcoming campus to better engage today’s at-risk and underrepresented students.

Why do students drop out of college?

College retention rates
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In our last blog, we discussed the demographic changes taking place on college campuses today. Students are most likely to be working adults, students of color, and from low-income families. Further, they are more likely to be unprepared academically. 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. These students face significant risk of not being able to complete postsecondary education because of barriers that must be addressed.

1. Lack of affordability

Lack of affordability is a main reason why students drop out of college. In the last decade, the cost of attending college has climbed 56%. At the same time, family income has stagnated. State spending for higher education was drastically reduced during the recession. However, it has yet to be fully reinstated in most states. In some cases, it continues to be cut. State spending for higher education is currently 16% lower than it was in 2008. As a result, colleges and universities have raised tuition significantly, but the federal Pell grant has not kept pace. In many cases, Pell 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-generation students face challenges in navigating an uncertain and confusing financial aid process. First-gen students 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, driving students to drop out. Furthermore, 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 expenses

Another reason why students drop out of college is living expenses. Generally, first-gen students understand the tuition costs to attend college. However, they often underestimate non-tuition costs and 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 adequate food and housing. Consequently, this can greatly impact 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 Hispanic students, and 39% of Caucasian students reported experiencing food insecurity in the past 30 days. In addition, 60% of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 48% at four-year institutions reported experiencing housing insecurity. Roughly 18% of students at two-year institutions (14% at four-year institutions) classified as homeless.

3. Work

As a result, the vast majority of today’s college students (85%) work while enrolled in order to pay for school and support themselves. They spend an average of 4 hours per day working, 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 undergraduates work 30 or more hours. Consequently, 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 of college. Low-income and first-generation students are more likely to come from low-performing high schools, experience academic under-preparedness, and achieve lower GPAs in college than their high-income peers. Many struggle with basic academic skills such as writing or math and need extensive academic support.

One in four students are required to enroll in non-credit bearing remedial classes their first year of college, which increases time to degree and therefore the cost. Full-time undergraduate students 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”

First-generation and low-income students often report feelings of self-doubt and a lack of belonging on college campuses. In many cases, achievement gaps aren’t due to poor academic preparation. Rather, they’re due to cultural challenges, particularly for students whose parents did not attend college. They may struggle to navigate the heavy academic jargon and higher education lingo used in campus guides, course syllabi, and school websites. They may not understand social norms, effective study practices, where to find resources, or what “office hours” are. Importantly, 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.

Low-income students may come from living situations in which they had little choice or control over their environments. As a result, they may be surprised that so many tasks, such as selecting courses and completing 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 expressing personal views.

6. Anxiety

Gen Z students were raised in a time of extreme stress and uncertainty. The Great Recession, rise of school shootings, the fall of the World Trade Center, and threat 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 proportion of teens ages 14-17 who reported experiencing a major depressive episode increased by more than 60% between 2009 and 2017, according to the National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Students 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, with anxiety being the number one complaint at campus health centers from 2009-2016. Anxiety can decrease the ability to focus and learn, thereby decreasing grades. Also, it can be debilitating enough to limit attendance in class and campus engagement, leading to dropout.

More than previous generations, current college students are significantly more likely to report feelings of isolation. Many first-gen students, particularly those at elite institutions, report feeling like guests in someone else’s house or that their college is not for people “like them.” Students frequently report feeling “like a number” because their institution does not care about them personally. Students need help connecting with their peers in order to build networks of social and informational support.

The bottom line for students is feeling like somebody 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 significant revenue losses incurred from dropouts and transfers, and less than the time and cost associated with trying to recruit transfer students.

In our extensive 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.

How to Engage At-Risk Students to Meet Your Retention Goals
How to Engage At-Risk Students to Meet Your Retention Goals
The Student Retention Guidebook

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