Why Students Don't Graduate from College

"Too many college students gradua [sic]with six-figures of debt, wondering how they'll ever pay it off. If they had gotten good advice on the importance of taking enough credits to graduate quickly, they could have planned better and avoided unnecessary debt." -Tom Kean, New Jersey Senator

To remedy the situation as he sees it, Senator Kean proposes billboards and other marketing aimed at encouraging students to take 30 credits a year towards their degree rather than fewer than 30.  

Let's look at the premise, first. 

Are too many college students graduating from college with six figures of debt? Most of the data says no. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only five percent of students graduate with over $100,000 in student debt. Part of that, perhaps a large part, is debt from medical and law degrees, not college.

Many students do borrow money for college: about two out of three. The average debt that a student graduates with is $30,100, according to one of the best studies on this by the Institute for College Access & Success.  On a ten -year repayment schedule, that is $346.39/month.

So, not a lot of students are graduating with "six-figures of debt." There is widespread debt, but to a much lesser degree.

Let's turn to the next claim, that students are not graduating because they did not plan better and took too few courses. Most of the extensive studies on graduation will not say that students left college due to poor course planning. 

What are some of the reasons why students don't graduate?

Financial. Some leave because they cannot afford to pay tuition. Maybe their family contribution suffers from a lost job, a medical emergency, or a housing problem. In some of these cases the student not only cannot afford continued college costs, but might actually feel the need to move back in with the family to help with a crisis. Or, maybe to work and contribute to the family finances.

Another financial impact on college graduation is needing to work while in college to help pay the bills. Students who work many hours a week for pay are more likely to drop out. But there is another issue here with students who work long hours, which is that the work time cuts into academic time and social time. Students who work long hours can suffer academically. They also can form less of a connection with fellow students and feel less of a sense of belonging to the college. All these issues impact graduating.

There are also institutional characteristics that impact graduation. Research that I have done shows that institutions that devote fewer resources to student support tend to graduate fewer students. Barriers can be high ratios of faculty to students and of academic advisors to students.

I'll point out one more big problem: remediation. Many students graduate from high school ill prepared for college work. This can mean that the first year of college is spent retaking classes, such as English and math, that should have been mastered in high school. When a student who might already be feeling financial pressure to attend college sees that the whole year of "college" is really just a repeat of high school, he or she understandably has second thoughts. 

I applaud the New Jersey Senate for seeing that college graduation needs help. But does it need billboards? Probably not. More money needs to go towards state financial support. Two big ways to influence graduation would be to increase financial aid and to increase student support. 

I think that's a better way to solve the problem than to blame the student for poor planning.