More People Starting College, Fewer Finishing, Report Finds

Last Updated Sep 28, 2011 6:32 AM EDT

A college degree may not be the golden ticket it once was, but it's still objectively a much better route to career success than trying to make it with less education. It's in the interest of the economy as a whole for more people to get degrees, so you'd think the fact that more and more people are enrolling in college would earn cheers.

But while it's true more students are starting college than ever before, according to the report from organization Complete College America, that's only half the story. After sifting through data from 33 states, the group, which is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that the traditional image of a bright eyed young person, studying full-time and progressing smoothly towards graduation is the exception rather than rule.

The study found that 40 percent of students attend college part-time and that the completion rates of this group are particularly hard to track. "If somebody pops in and takes a community college class and they don't finish, you don't know whether they were ever planning to get a degree," Judith Scott-Clayton of the Community College Research Center told the New York Times in reference to the research. In the past this has meant the fate of these students have largely been ignored.

Not only are more students than you probably imagine going part-time, but a huge majority -- 75 percent -- of all college students are juggling work and family responsibilities that make finishing more challenging. Taken together the statistics shatter preconceptions of what a typical college student is like.

Forget a book bag toting youth fresh out of high school with parents standing by ready to pay his bills and do his laundry on breaks home. "Only a quarter go full-time, attend residential colleges, and have most of their bills paid by their parents," says the report.

The bottom line is that with so many non-traditional students entering college, graduation rates that take into account all students are shockingly low and under-reported.

Numbers vary from state to stare but no more than a quarter of part-time students graduate, even when they take extra time to earn their degrees. In some states the numbers are truly terrible. The New York Times sums up the situation in Texas, for example:

Of every 100 students who enrolled in a public college, 79 started at a community college, and only 2 of them earned a two-year degree on time; even after four years, only 7 of them graduated. Of the 21 of those 100 who enrolled at a four-year college, 5 graduated on time; after eight years, only 13 had earned a degree.
So what should be done? The lengthy report has a laundry list of recommendations for those interested in a deep dive into the subject, but the group's ideas include better tracking of student outcomes, elimination of excessive requirements and credits as well as needless breaks in the academic calendar, block scheduling, utilizing online learning where appropriate, requiring students to submit completion plans and ensuring it's easier to transfer general requirements between institutions. The report also notes that remediation classes are often a "Bermuda Triangle" in which students lose their way and suggests that skills-building instruction be better integrated into the curriculum.

What do you think we need to do ensure more students don't just start college, but also finish?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr use Tulane Public Relations, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.