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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.

Students who self-identified as troublemakers in high school were less likely to graduate, with 17% of students who dropped out saying they were troublemakers, compared with only 6% of students who graduated. Of the students who dropped out, 23% said that they spent too much time socializing and not enough time studying, compared with 14% of students who graduated. 18% of the students who dropped out said that it was hard to pay attention in class, compared with 9% of the students who graduated.

Two-thirds (65%) of the students who dropped out have thought a lot about returning to school. However, many indicated that they might not return even if they got a grant for tuition and books (but not living expenses). The reasons given for not returning included needing to work (56%), family commitments (53%), affordability (26%) and no classes that fit their schedule (17%). Food and shelter are considered more important than education.

Students who did not graduate suggested a variety of solutions for increasing graduation rates: Allowing part-time students to qualify for student aid (81%), providing more flexible weekend/evening classes (78%), cutting college costs by 25% (78%), providing more college loans (76%), provide child care (76%), promoting good study habits in high school (73%) and providing health insurance to students even if they are enrolled part-time (69%). Factors that increase graduation rates also include traditional enrollment immediately after high school graduation, enrolling on a full-time basis and working less while in school.

The study was based on a survey of 614 students aged 22 to 30 with some 2-year or 4-year college experience. The survey was conducted between May 7, 2009 and June 24, 2009. The survey results have a margin of error of +/- 4.8%.


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