What Causes College Dropouts?

A recent NCES study provides a fresh look at the noncompletion crisis.

Alarming figures from a recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report have shed light on a concerning trend in higher education. The study reveals that a mere 60 percent of tracked college enrollees from the high-school class of 2013 earned a degree or credential within eight years of beginning postsecondary education. This finding underscores a significant issue that carries far-reaching implications for individual economic prospects, society-wide productivity, and the overall competitiveness of the American workforce.

The causes behind the noncompletion trend are multifaceted and complex. One of the primary factors is the financial burden and debt-threat posed by the ever-increasing costs of higher education. With tuition fees, room and board, and associated expenses skyrocketing, students and their families face immense challenges affording a college degree. Consequently, many are forced to take on substantial debt or abandon their educational pursuits altogether. Unsurprisingly, as NCES reports, “a greater percentage of students whose family income in 2011 exceeded $115,000 had earned a postsecondary credential by June 30, 2021 (78 percent), compared to students at lower family income levels (49 to 70 percent).”

If colleges and policymakers wish to address the noncompletion trend, a comprehensive approach will be necessary.The allure of alternative pathways has also contributed to the trend of noncompletion. Direct entry into the workforce offers more immediate opportunities and the potential for earning a decent income without the substantial financial investment required for a certificate or degree. Responding to the NCES report, and noting that unemployment was falling when the Class of 2013 left high school, Nate Johnson of Postsecondary Analytics told Inside Higher Ed that “the alternatives to going to college looked a lot better during that period. You can’t blame people for deciding that going into the labor force right away is a better value when the jobs are available.”

If colleges and policymakers wish to address the noncompletion trend, a comprehensive approach will be necessary. Firstly, reshaping humanities curricula to emphasize the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving, could enhance these degrees’ perceived relevance. Despite the widespread push for STEM education, the NCES study found that 81 percent of students who completed a degree or certificate did so in a non-STEM field, underscoring the importance of such credentials to higher education’s future.

Enhancing student-support services is another crucial aspect of addressing the noncompletion challenge. Though such efforts can go too far on campuses, providing comprehensive mental-health resources can aid students in navigating the challenges and stresses associated with higher education, potentially reducing their risk of dropping out. Implementing effective study-assistance programs, such as tutoring, peer mentoring, and academic coaching, can also help students overcome academic hurdles and increase their chances of success. However, it is vital to acknowledge these support services’ potential limitations and utilization challenges, as they may require substantial resources and effective promotion to ensure maximum impact.

Lastly, improving high-school education can play a pivotal role in better preparing students for the rigors of higher education. The NCES report revealed that 57.4 percent of private high-school students earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to only 35.5 percent of students from public schools. Addressing these disparities in educational quality and resources at the high-school level is crucial. Additionally, examining the impact of “feeder schools”—high schools that consistently send a significant portion of their graduates to colleges or universities—can inform strategies to improve college readiness and completion rates nationwide.

The noncompletion issue has multifaceted causes, from financial burdens and debt-aversion to the perceived lack of relevance of specific curricula and the allure of alternative pathways. By confronting the college-dropout crisis head-on, we can unlock the boundless potential of America’s students and keep our nation’s legacy of ingenuity and opportunity thriving for generations to come.

Sherman Criner is a rising junior at Duke University studying public policy, history, and political science.