Why So Many Students Drop Out of College

by James A. Bacon

Roughly 70% of all high school graduates in the United States pursue higher education. Among first-time full-time students who enroll in four-year institutions 40% fail to complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, and most of those never will. The non-completion rate is even higher for community college enrollees. This “completion crisis” is costly to students, most of whom wind up carrying a crippling load of debt, and to taxpayers, who are stuck with a fast-expanding portfolio of non-performing student loans.

Here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we have argued that the completion crisis is one of the greatest sources of immiseration for the American people today. If you’re looking for institutional injustice, this is a good place to start.

Society creates the expectation that Americans should be able to attend college, even if they are academically unprepared, and lends them to money to do so. But society often fails to provide the support to ensure that lower-income students succeed.

Virginia is no exception to the completion crisis. Among students enrolling in four-year institutions in Virginia in the 2011-12 academic year, the most recent for which the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia publishes data, 70.2% earned degrees within six years. Put another way, almost 30% failed to earn a degree. The completion rate is highest among higher-income Virginians (earning four times or more of poverty-level income) at 77.2%. That still leaves nearly one out of four students from higher-income families who fail to graduate. Not surprisingly, the drop-out rate is higher among students from lower-income families, at 57.8%.

A new study by Rachel Fulcher Dawson, Melissa S. Kearney, and James X. Sullivan, “Comprehensive Approaches to Increasing Student Completion in Higher Education: a Survey of the Landscape,” sheds light on why students drop out of college and highlights eight programs shown to be successful in raising the completion rate. In this post, I will recount the authors’ observations about the obstacles to college completion, and in a subsequent post I will describe the programs.

Here follows a discussion of the barriers to completion described in that study.

Academic under-preparation. Many students attending college aren’t prepared academically to succeed. Often, write the authors, students had not taken courses in high school that are prerequisites for college courses and majors. As a consequence, students must take remedial or developmental coursework before starting to take classes that count towards a degree. Although the authors don’t put it quite so baldly, it also appears that much of the high school coursework was simply deficient. Almost one-third of college students take remedial courses in reading, writing and math. Academic under-preparation may be exacerbated by a lack of necessary study skills to tackle challenging college-level coursework.

Students who enroll in remedial courses are 38% less likely to complete their degrees than other students.

College tuition costs. The high cost of attendance is widely considered a barrier to four-college persistence, says the study, although it is less of a factor in community college. The fact is, the Pell Grant program provided $30 billion in aid for low-income students in 2015, while discounted tuition and student loans make upmost of the difference.

Institutional barriers. Researched based on interviews with community college students suggest that many struggle to navigate the system. Many need help understanding course requirements and knowing if the courses they select meet their graduation needs. “Students are often side-tracked by failing to register for the correct courses on time or by choosing a major that does not match their skill set or career interests,” the authors say.

On average, smaller institutions have better outcomes — possibly because they offer a more limited and focused set of programs for students to choose from. A study delving into the issue found mixed evidence that the level of expenditures on student services makes a difference. “Spending alone won’t improve services, and therefore student outcomes, if that spending is not on well-designed or effective programs.”

Non-academic barriers. Students often face challenges that have nothing to do with academic coursework or the cost of attendance. “Challenges arise in the form of health issues, financial shocks, mental health struggles, among others,” the study says. Some students suffer from “separation and estrangement.” Some lack the commitment, time, or time-management skills to set out a path to graduation and stay committed to that plan. “Students who lack clear goals and a genuine understanding of why college is important often become derailed by relatively minor challenges and setbacks.”

These problems are exacerbated for low-income students whose families have fewer resources to survive setbacks such as family emergencies, vehicle repairs, or missed rent payments. (Governor Ralph Northam targeted this particular set of issues in the current General Fund budget by providing up to $1,000 per semester for low-income students to help when “life gets in the way.” Although these funds have been budgeted, a COVID-related budget freeze might have delayed their release.)

As the study makes clear, the problem of non-completion is multi-faceted and needs to be addressed at several levels. Colleges and universities need to do a better job of advising and counseling students. Cost of attendance may be less of a barrier than commonly thought, but carefully targeted assistance might be beneficial to lower-income students. Perhaps most controversially, institutions may need to rethink their practice of admitting students who may not be academically qualified to complete a course of study.

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10 responses to “Why So Many Students Drop Out of College

  1. Are colleges measured on their completion rates? Are they funded or not funded on that basis, or do the dollars merely follow butts in chairs? It was now a decade ago I was listening to discussions within SCHEV about this very problem, and how the real answer was more intensive tracking and advising and encouragement of the at-risk students, right from semester #1, but is that how Boards of Visitors and lefty faculty senates seek to spend their dollars? Ten years later it would appear not….Is that actually what these massive diversity bureaucracies are seeing as their mission? Again, it would appear not.

    “…institutions may need to rethink their practice of admitting students who may not be academically qualified to complete a course of study.” Was that the authors speaking, Jim, or you? You report they tagged the issue, but is that the solution they offered? If we follow that advice, how many schools suddenly don’t have the bodies they used to have?

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    College kids should look into working for companies that will support them while attending classes. For example UPS. 21 bucks an hour as a warehouse package handler. 4 hour early morning shift, 4 hour evening shift, late morning and early afternoon off for taking classes. They pay out 25 grand for college tuition assistance. After 9 months UPS will pick up your medical and dental. After college stick with UPS and move up the chain.

    We have enough video game software developers, athletic trainers, and women’s studies specialists. Why not look at college from a realistic long term point of view? You might just uncover your true dreams and aspirations along the way.

  3. “Perhaps most controversially, institutions may need to rethink their practice of admitting students who may not be academically qualified to complete a course of study.”


    The military academies run preparatory schools for themselves. These schools provide a “fifth year of high school”as I understand it. Attractive candidates for admission to West Point who lack the scholarship requirements for the USMA spend a year at the prep school. My admittedly limited understanding is that these students are often athletes, enlisted personnel or high school students just shy of the academic requirements necessary for appointment.

    Why wouldn’t Virginia universities run the same type of program? Funding for the adult children of less affluent parents could be subsidized by the state or through endowments. At worst, the student gets some additional education while discovering that they are not capable of college level work. At best, people who wouldn’t graduate within six years now go to college and graduate.

    There was one aspect of the West Point Preparatory School that I found noteworthy – “Only math and English are taught at the Prep School. CCs are given a chance to take a voluntary science refresher course during their summer leave prior to entering West Point.’


    Oh, one other thing … if a university admits a student into my theoretical prep school and then admits that student into the regular university a year later – the university is responsible for any student loan defaults by that student if he or she doesn’t graduate.

    • “… the university is responsible for any student loan defaults by that student if he or she doesn’t graduate.”

      Wait, are not 18-year olds capable of making adult decisions? Isn’t this the stance that Conservatives use whenever Liberals set programs to aid minorities?

  4. Everything funded by tax dollars has become a jobs program. And generally without many performance measurements and controls. Money should follow the student from K-12 through graduate school. But that’s spitting into the wind.

    There will always be college dropouts, but there should be a cap on the maximum number permitted or money (which will continue to go to institutions) should be reduced. The focus needs to shift to the consumers, away from the suppliers.

    • Institutions have a moral hazard with regard to admissions. It costs them nothing to admit a student who drops out. They collect tuition while the student is in school and the student (or taxpayers) bail out the student’s debt.

      Funny that when banks were accused of having a moral hazard over bailouts people like Elizabeth Warren couldn’t stifle herself. Now that liberals colleges and universities have a moral hazard you can’t hear a peep.

      • Back in our day, English 101, aka An Introduction to Vietnam, was designed, along with certain other math and science courses, to prepare the student for an important self-evaluation.

        Either continue to fail, and find yourself in front of the local draft board trying to convince them that you’re a Quaker, or knockup your high school sweetheart and hope for a hardship status.

  5. I recently started reading an interesting, thought-provoking book about problems in higher education in America. The book is: Jason Brennan & Phillip Magness, Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2019). The authors are scathing in their criticisms of higher education.

  6. “College ain’t for you!” The 2nd most important thing taught at the college level.

  7. Students drop out of college because they can’t make the grade,,, pun accidental.
    Of course if you deny them a chance they scream discrimination.

    Then there is to much partying, drugs and other stupid things college kids do rather than study and work hard.. add in the lousy job that public schools do as they use kids as guinea pigs for all kinds of social experiments rather than offering them the good basic education us taxpayers overpay for.. note I said offer,, a lot of them lack motivation,, parental, or otherwise..

    Straight up vouchers would solve a good chunk of this problem, but then liberals wouldn’t be able to do all that social experimentation…

    And as usual,, Government choosing winners and losers….

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