More Data on Why Students Don’t Complete College Degrees

by James A. Bacon

The biggest reasons students take college courses but fail to complete a degree are work-related, according to a Strada Education Network survey of more than 42,00 adults nationally with some college but no degree. Seventeen percent cited “work-related” reasons for ceasing their studies. The second mostly commonly cited reason was financial pressure, followed closely by life events/personal problems.

When people rack up thousands of dollars in student loans without obtaining an educational credential that will enable them to qualify for a better job, it is both a personal setback and a waste of social resources. The Strada study is important because it helps identify the reasons why many students fail to get degrees, and it provides lawmakers and colleges guidance in how to address the college dropout issue.

Governor Ralph Northam has budgeted $145 million to make community college tuition-free for low- and middle-income students pursuing jobs in high-demand fields. He cited numbers from Reynolds Community College showing that full-time students who dropped out before completing their degrees “usually had earned a 3.1 grade point average when they left school.” If they didn’t leave for academic reasons, the Governor surmised, they must have left for a lack of money.

After checking the Reynolds data, I found that conclusion was unwarranted. Although the data ruled out low GPAs as a reason for at least 40% to those who did not return for a second year of study, it did not address what their motivations were. I suggested that one other reason might be because they had found a job. There could have been other reasons.

However, the Strada data provides some evidence in support of Northam’s position.

When asked the main reason why they did not finish a degree, 12% of survey respondents cited “financial pressure.” When asked why they were not currently taking college courses, 12% said, “too expensive.” So, it’s fair to say that the financial barrier is a factor for one in eight college dropouts. When asked what would impact the likelihood of them re-enrolling, 52% of all respondents said free community college tuition would make a “great deal” of difference. So, it’s also fair to say that providing more financial support would encourage some to finish their studies.

But the Strada survey makes equally clear that there are many other obstacles, the biggest of which is work/life balance. Says the report: “Difficulty balancing school and work is a key reason people stop out of college. Educational providers need to acknowledge that a high percentage of their students will be working and going to school — and provide the flexibility to make it possible for these students to do both.”

Forty-seven percent of those surveyed said that courses and training that fit their schedule would make “a great deal” of difference in their decision to re-enroll. Another 47% said having guaranteed employment upon earning their degree would make a great deal of difference. Other important factors were “low-cost tuition” (as opposed to free tuition), courses and training that employers needed, and locally accessible learning centers. Les important factors were availability of distance learning and support for child care.

As Strada interprets the data, education must (1) be affordable, (2) fit education into the work/life balance, and (3) provide students “a clear career benefit to invest the time and money in further education.”

Now, let’s circle back to Northam’s $145 million plan. Low-income students already qualify for federal Pall grants, federal loans, and state financial aid. But, as the Governor says, “life gets in the way.” Student loans don’t cover the cost of child care or cars with busted radiators. His plan, which would include cash grants of up to $1,000 per semester and $500 per summer term, would help low-income students with no spouses or family members to fall back on. Will the sum be enough to get them over the hump? That’s unknown.

The Strada survey suggests that Northam’s G3 program will do nothing for the seven-eighths of students who did not cite financial issues. However, if it promotes upward income mobility for students from low-income households, it may prove worthwhile. If low-income students get better jobs, pay more in taxes, and consume less in government benefits, the state may even get a return on its investment. Undoubtedly, it’s preferable to spend public funds on education that helps people escape poverty than to spend money supporting them in proverty.

Whether G3 makes a measurable difference in the number of lower-income Virginians getting degrees, we’ll have to wait to find out. Let’s hope someone is measuring the impact of the program to see if it does what it’s intended to do.

There are currently no comments highlighted.

7 responses to “More Data on Why Students Don’t Complete College Degrees

  1. If you’re from the world of a family that always intended for you to finish high school and go off to a 4-year on campus life – you won’t really understand this other world of folks who did not do that.

    Work/life balance is a generic catch-all phrase for a wide variety of life circumstances where the “plan” is often no plan – and it’s more of “what happens next” and if you’re from a family that has no 4-yr college grads – it’s totally new territory.

    Many of these kids never developed good study habits – that lead to academic success. They never worried about their QCAs. Many are not great at English and Math.

    it’s a mess. Money is not the universal tonic!

    The basic premise of the “help them out” school of thought is that $30,000 of college debt is cheap compared to $30,000 of annual entitlements spread over 10 or 20 years.

    Every kid that “bootstraps” is 300K saved….

    Is anyone keeping track of it?

    How would one measure success or failure of this?

    You’d have to follow each one for a decade or more?

  2. Jim, you are to be commended for keeping an open mind, doing some more research, and modifying your earlier opposition as a result. I am still a little skeptical of the program, but as you say, it is better to spend money trying to help people better themselves than continuing to support them in poverty. Another advantage of this program: the money will not be spent if there are not enough people willing to take advantage of it.

  3. His Excellency really wanted to match some his other compatriots around the country and do “free college” or some such. The price tag caused him to balk. So they went with a narrow, targeted program and came up with a rationale to justify it, which Jim is now having fun destroying. A few years ago Virginia started giving financial aid to community college students seeking certificates, not just associate degrees, and that was highly popular. This is just another targeted scholarship program. In a week we find out what the money committees are willing to fund. Another upside is that a move to “free for all” would have removed any incentive to control costs, but this small pool of new scholarship dollars might not have that effect.

    It certainly makes as much sense as those tuition grants to rich kids going to expensive private schools. That third rail shall not be touched…..

  4. His Excellency (Blackface) really wanted to match …” But he also wants to reward one bird as he punishes another with a single stone. Thus kids in big metros get free education while kids in smaller private non profit schools in rural/ smaller metros are punished. You vote for Blackface, or Blackface screws your kids. That is how Blackface rules Virginia. Plus he’s got casinos for a weapon against you and your family, too. Next he picks your pocket for 36 cents each time you or your family buys a gallon of gas.

  5. The goal of encouraging more people to become better educated in areas that the economy has jobs for – is a no-brainer for most.

    The rub comes in how to achieve it.

    You can argue against it, perhaps in the same way we might argue against the cost of K-12 right now, i.e. we’re spending all this money and K-12 still “fails”.

    Not an advocate of MO Money per se but at the same time – minimally educated folks, right now, cost taxpayers a lot of entitlement money.

    Is the premise that more education is not the cure for this or that more money spent will not have a good ROI or what?

    For the 21st economy, we may need to re-think K-12 in terms of K-14.

    High School, even basic generic college will not necessarily get you an entry-level career job.

    basic labor is a commodity. It does not even pay a living wage, and we argue about whether minimum wage is the antidote or not.

    People who earn minimum wage – when they do their taxes -if they have kids – they often receive 3000 to 8000 dollars in “refunds”. The GOP has, over the years, actually supported EIC.

    I ask – if we pay this for 10 years, it can (and does) come to 50,000.

    and we argue instead about “free” college…

    We don’t like what we have and we don’t like what is proposed.

    What DO we LIKE?

  6. Way back at the turn of the last century, Henry Ford was known to have paid his workers on the assembly line substantially higher wages than the competition. He believed that well paid happy workers made better cars. Of course if your a Chevy man, Ford always made better lemons. Mr. Ford’s work force was mostly uneducated. They could not even read and write. Vast numbers of them were immigrants from Europe or caught up in the great rural to urban migration of the era. Ford fixed this problem by paying his workers to go to night school and gain the education/skills needed for a more efficient business.

    Why not incentivize Virginia’s business leaders to do the same? Offer tax credits or something to the employers of Virginia to send their employees for further education and job training relevant to the employer.

    • John –

      There are good and competent people in Virginia trying to do that, and it was beginning to work, but now those fine efforts are being threatened by these new and highly politicized leftist majority policies and bills that have overtaken the agenda of Virginia’s government due to the last election which needs to be reversed.

Leave a Reply