The statistics on college graduation and student retention rates can seem grim: Fewer than 40 percent of students who start a degree will finish it within four years. Stretch the timeline out to six years and 59 percent of students will manage to earn their degrees. But that still leaves 41 percent of students who enroll leaving college without completing their education. What’s behind this disparity? For decades, no one thought twice about how many students were graduating on time. These striking numbers were only revealed in the mid-90s when the federal government only began reporting four-year graduation rates. With more students coming from non-traditional backgrounds —low income, first in the family to attend, etc.— students and families came to view college as an investment more than a rite of passage. Pressure is coming from the government and the families of students to make good on promises to deliver an education that ends with a degree in hand.
To address the call for accountability, colleges are redesigning introductory courses and investing in software to give real-time feedback on whether students are absorbing the material. They’re training peer mentors and professional advisors, all with the goal of boosting graduation rates.
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If you’re concerned with student retention, you need to understand what’s behind low graduation rates. Here’s a look at five reasons why students are leaving college before they finish their degrees.
The reasons students aren’t finishing their degrees fall into two main categories: they’re not prepared for college, and once they arrive, they don’t understand how to graduate.
1) Students are Inadequately Prepared
Almost two-thirds of high school students go on to some form of college. But the quality of secondary education varies so much that some of these students are woefully underprepared for the demands of a college curriculum.
Many students find they have to enroll in remedial or developmental courses which don’t count toward graduation. Students relying on financial aid are forced to use grants or student loans to pay for these courses. Since financial aid has lifetime limits, students are often surprised when the aid has run out just as they’re entering their junior or senior years.
2) College is Hard to Navigate
Students are supposed to venture outside their comfort zones when they go to college, but many are left bewildered by the sheer number of options college presents. After all, most high schools have rigid curricula where students progress on a predetermined path. College, on the other hand, offers everything from astronomy to zoology.
The difficulty of navigating through college pushes many students to quit altogether.
3) Students Taking too Long to Choose Majors
A 2015 study by Western Kentucky University reported that students who haven’t settled on a major by the end of their second year were at higher risk for dropping out than those who had picked a course of study. Interestingly, changing majors during a student’s first two years appear to have no negative consequences, but switching after sophomore year is correlated with dropping out.
4) Change Schools and Credits Don’t Transfer
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that 37.2 percent of students transfer at least once during college. Of those, nearly 40 percent will lose all their credits from their original institutions. Leaping without looking is can cause major setbacks for students.
5) Students Can’t Balance Work and School
A 2016 study by Brigham Young University found that working a few hours on a campus job could boost GPAs but working more than 20 hours a week can harm a student’s academic success, increasing time to graduation and dropout rates. Considering more than 70 percent of students will work during college, it’s wise for these students to pay close attention to the delicate balance between work and school.
A Perceived Lack of Guidance Leaves Students Afloat Many students perceive college to be a “sink or swim” environment that lacks guidance. Worse, they’re hesitant to look for help even as grades plummet and motivation dwindles. Many colleges are rebranding academic probation as an opportunity for students to work closely with advisors and tutors who can help revive flat-lining academic progress. Students who pick “good fit” colleges are more likely to succeed and boost your student retention rates. Our advice? Colleges should focus on marketing that conveys as much about their campus personality as their admissions requirements.