The Coaching Educator

More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why:

student sitting alone

(Photo by Mikail Duran)

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.)

You’ve achieved that precious objective of being admitted to the college of your choice, in the field of study that most interests you or that seems to be of greatest practical value. You’re willing to put in the effort to succeed. But will you last the distance? If you don’t, you’ll have plenty of company, as 54 percent of Americans who begin college-level studies fail to finish.

The factors leading to these unfortunate results are legion, but they lend themselves to grouping in a manageable number of categories, of which we have identified five as the most critical:

The expense is prohibitive.

This one is the clear winner among causes. We discussed some of the reasons for it in another post (An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child, September 6, 2018). The sad fact is that the cost of higher education has become downright ugly. Seventy percent of college students work while attending classes, according to a study by Georgetown University. In some cases immediate expenses make it necessary to work. In other cases it’s a matter of anticipating the debt burden they’ll face after graduation. In the former instance the outlay can overwhelm the income along the way, and in either instance burnout can lead to dropout. According to Public Agenda, 71 percent of students who leave college without a degree give “I needed to go to work and make money” as the reason, while 52 percent say that “I just couldn’t afford the tuition and fees.”

Some can’t handle the responsibility.

Even the most structured college, short of a military school, tends to be a great deal less structured than high school. College life requires self-discipline and initiative on a scale unfamiliar to most teenagers. The problem may lie with a simple inability to get down to business without direct supervision, or it may be related to misbehavior. Of those who say they socialize too much, nearly a quarter drop out, while the dropout rate is nearly 20 percent among those who say they were troublemakers in high school. Some students adapt to college readily, some with difficulty, and some not at all.

Roger Martin, former college president and author of Off to College: a Guide for Parents, says time-management is “the number-one issue for freshmen…They don’t know how to manage their academic work, their social life, and their other activities.” Martin and psychologist John Duffy agree that hovering parents are a major part of the problem: Too many parents micromanage their children too far into adolescence.

Lack of academic preparedness.

The college admissions process is supposed to help match students with institutions and programs that are suitable. That’s what transcripts, standardized tests, essays, and interviews are for. Nonetheless the exercise is far from foolproof. Very. Even in the absence of the aforementioned shortcomings of self-management and/or maturity, sheer academic deficiency can lead to either a voluntary or involuntary exit from college, and the statistics are not encouraging in this arena.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that 60 percent of college freshmen are not adequately prepared for post-secondary courses, and the National Conference for State Legislatures says that fewer than 25 percent of students who take remedial courses ever graduate. The “readiness gap” ranges from 10 percent at highly selective institutions to 60 percent in the most non-selective public universities. Even college-prep courses are not having the desired effect.

The college isn’t the right fit.

Sometimes students decide to study subjects for which they have no real aptitude or interest, even if their high school performance is at least adequate in those areas. An institution may prove to be the wrong size, or it may have a culture that proves unsuitable. (See Ten Common Mistakes You Must Avoid in Applying for College, August 31, 2018.) The result is a premature exit from that college, and possibly a permanent absence from higher education.

Personal crises.

Emotional problems, disruptions of physical health, family emergencies, and domestic problems can all lead to the inability or unwillingness to finish college. Needless to say, such burdens can be especially heavy for students who have children before or during their college years. Personal problems often are exacerbated or caused by financial ones, and they can also be related to others in the aforementioned categories. All too often the student’s academic life is a permanent casualty.

Research indicates, unsurprisingly, that troubles in any of the above areas are more likely to occur if the student is from a lower-income background and/or is the first in his or her family to attend college.

While physical or mental health problems or family crises generally lie outside the purview of college-and-career consultants, it is fair to say that most of the difficulties discussed in this article are preventable via adequate financial aid and sensible academic coaching. The Coaching Educator has nearly a decade of experience helping students and their families secure grants and scholarships, identify the optimal colleges and degree programs for their needs, select the high school courses and resources necessary for college readiness, and develop work habits conducive to getting into and succeeding at the right college. To learn more about how we can help, book a free consultation today.

Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.


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