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Why Do Students Drop Out of College?

Mark Kantrowitz

December 17, 2009

A study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that the main reason why students drop out of college is the conflict between school and work and family commitments. The study, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, was conducted by Public Agenda, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public policy research organization.

Many students who drop out of college have to work while enrolled in college. They often find it very difficult to support themselves and their families and go to college at the same time. Many have dependent children and enroll part-time. Many lack adequate support from parents and student aid.

Nearly three-quarters (71%) of students who dropped out of college said that work contributed to the decision, with more than half (54%) identifying it as a major factor. About a third (35%) said that balancing work and school was too stressful.

Other major reasons for leaving school included affordability of tuition and fees (31%) and needing a break (21%).

Half of students who drop out of college have income under $35,000, compared with only a quarter of students who graduate.

Many of the students who dropped out said that they had inadequate financial assistance from their families and the student aid system. For example, 58% of college dropouts said that they had no help from their parents, compared with 37% among students who graduated. Similarly, 69% said that they had no scholarships or loans, compared with 43% among students who graduated.

The lack of financial support from parents made a difference in college choices. Of the students who had no help from their parents, 62% chose their college based on proximity to home or work and 54% based on a convenient class schedule, compared with 45% and 37% among students who had parental support. These choices had an impact on graduation rates. Of students who did not graduate, 66% chose their college based on location and 59% based on class schedules, compared with 45% and 36% among students who graduated. Students who graduated were more likely to choose a college based on its academic reputation (54% versus 33%).

The lack of parental support was not just a lack of financial support. Of those without parental support, 50% had parents with no education beyond high school, compared with 21% among those who had some parental support. Their parents were also less likely to instill the value of a college education, 39% versus 60%.

Whether the student believes the college degree to be valuable is a strong predictor of completion. Among those students who did not graduate, 62% said a college degree does not help in the current economic climate and 36% said a college degree is essential, while among those who graduated the percentages were 37% and 61%. High school teacher expectations also made a difference, with 29% of those who didn’t graduate saying that their teachers thought they wouldn’t go to college, compared with 16% of those who graduated.

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