In 1994, 33% of all college freshman dropped out--the highest dropout rate since the early 1980s. Studies showed that these students were not, by and large, flunking out. Academically, they could have stayed in school. But they didn't. The theory was--and remains--that what drove these students out of college was alienation, a sense of not belonging.
Demographics and income play an important part in retention:
According to the National Center for Education Statistics' 2002 "Condition of Education" report, 63% of high school graduates go straight on to college (as compared to 49% in 1972). 66% of white students go straight from high school to college, while only 55% of black students and about 50% of Hispanic students do. The numbers have improved for black students over time--only 38% of black high school grads were going right on to college in 1983. But the numbers have stayed largely the same for Hispanic students, hovering around 50% since 1972. Those numbers are correlated with income--the higher the family income, the more likely students are to go to college. . . . Affirmative action has helped a great deal with the admissions part of the equation. But retaining and graduating students of color continues to elude even schools that are trying their hardest to do so. Whereas 84% of white students enrolling at Berkeley between 1987 and 1990 graduated within six years, only 58% of black students and 67% of Hispanics did. As of the late 90s, the national black dropout rate was 60%; at elite schools, it was 25%--better, but still not great.
But, while those who don't stay may not be literally flunking out, academic preparation is clearly also an important factor in retention:
The numbers are also correlated with the quality of secondary school education--college-qualified low and middle income students who applied are as likely as wealthy students to enroll in college within 2 years of graduation (83 and 82% respectively). Those who took rigorous courseloads in high school have much better chances of making it through college to graduation.
I suspect that while many of these students did not flunk out, that they also were doing far less well in terms of grades, than their peers who stayed, within every economic and demographic group. But it is harder to stay when doing so means racking up big personal debts or putting financial pressures on family or losing scholarships that have higher expectations than the institution itself.
If you know what to expect, you are convinced that you are well prepared, you can count on virtually unconditional parental economic support that doesn't lead to family hardship, and you have peers to whom you feel you can turn, your college experience can be pretty bad before you consider dropping out. And, if you stick it out, you are more likely to get that all important piece of sheepskin and corresponding resume entry.
In interesting footnote to this discussion is the change in retention patterns at Yale. As explained by The Yale Herald:
uring the first half of the 20th century, roughly one out of every four students who matriculated at Yale College did not graduate. . . . All this changed in the '60s and '70s, as Yale's graduation rate surged past 90 percent, never to dip below that threshold again as a result of reforms in admissions. Over the last 25 years, Yale has graduated nearly 95 percent of its students. . . .
What's more, the five percent of any Yale class that does not graduate includes not only students who flunk out but also transfer students and those who withdraw for personal or medical reasons. The upshot: The genuine "flunkee" is an endangered species at Yale, a true Blue statistical outlier. . . . the most self-evident—albeit self-congratulatory—explanation for the paucity of F's is that the Admissions office selects students of such a high academic caliber that failing is rarely an issue. With an acceptance rate of 9.9 percent for the Class of 2008, Yale has never been as selective as it is now. . . .
Yale's retention rate increased dramatically in the '60s "because of changes in admissions policies and the desirability of an education at Yale." More specifically, the transition to a need-blind admissions process ensured that the University would accept the best and the brightest, not just the entitled. "With financial aid policies we're just pulling students here from a much larger pool," he said. "Plus the decision to admit women [in 1969] doubled that pool. And so students come in less likely to fail. I think [the rise in graduation rate] has less to do with a change in professors than with a change on the part of the students."
Having been at Yale both as a student in the '70s and as a teacher since 1996, Eire speaks from first-hand experience in agreeing with this assessment. "Between 1965 and 1970 a big change came—Yale became a true meritocracy whereas before it had been an aristocracy."
There is some anxiety at Yale that professors conditioned to thinking that students are smart are unduely reluctant to flunk failing students, but it doesn't seem to have much substance to it. Comparison of retention rates at comparably selective institutions also elicits an interesting response from administrators at those schools:
In light of substantially lower graduation rates at a number of top-tier academic institutions—most notably Caltech, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins—one may wonder what Yale is doing differently to identify and avert possible failures. When asked to speculate on the reasons behind Caltech's relatively low six-year graduation rate of 89 percent, Linda King, Caltech's associate registrar, pointed to a fundamental difference between both the structures and curricula of Caltech and Yale. "We're an engineering and science school that only graduates 200 students," she said, contrasting Caltech with institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, which have both a much larger student body and a more wide-ranging curriculum. Dean Salovey clarified the impact that curricular diversity may have on a university's retention rate, implying that schools like MIT and Caltech are less able to handle students' changing interests. "I would guess that [the difference in graduation rates between Yale and Caltech and MIT] may have less to do with grading or failing," he said. "So many students come to college with a certain idea of what they want to do, and then that idea gets challenged. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton can accommodate students who come in with one thing in mind and then want to pursue something different."
The implication is that elite tech colleges may be losing students to transfers, not necessarily immediate, rather than to ultimately concluded educations.
Another interesting observation is that college dropouts who leave for academic reasons tend to do so early:
Another important finding of research on student success* is that the seeds of leaving college tend to be planted early. “It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that you will lose half of the people you will lose — either physically or psychologically — by the end of the first semester,” said Peter Ewell, an expert on higher education assessment and vice president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).
“Certainly you don’t find a lot of people flunking out for academic reasons after the second year.”
Administrators at Elon University in North Carolina attribute increased retention to active efforts to prevent student alienation and provide extra support early on, and have some statistics to back up their claims:
University officials credit Elon’s first-year program with a consistent rise in four-year graduation rates from 45 percent in 1989 to 69 percent for the most recent graduating class. The rise has been particularly dramatic among African-American students, whose retention rates nearly doubled — rising from 32 percent to 71 percent — during this period.
This response to poor retention appears to be the preferred approach of college administrators.
Others argue that the real problem is in an admissions process that is too easy to allow people into college without telling them that the odds of success with their current levels of preparation are dismal, and argue against a college for all attitude (even if that only means community college for all):
Recent research shows that fewer than 38 percent of high school students who plan to get a college degree actually do so within 10 years of graduating. Of those with poor high school grades, less than 14 percent achieve their college plans. Many of these college dropouts get no college credits and enter the labor market no better off. Like other young people without college degrees, they face the prospect of dead-end jobs that offer minimum wages, low status and little training—a situation that appears to continue many years after graduation. . . . This particular group of young people is the focus of James E. Rosenbaum’s most recent book, Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half. . . .
A recent study found that 58.3 percent of high school graduates who landed jobs were only continuing the same dead-end jobs they had held in high school, while a 1993 survey of new high school graduates showed that four months after graduation 26 percent of whites and 50 percent of blacks had not been hired. . . .
Community colleges offering a two-year associate of arts (A.A.) degree aimed to reduce the academic barriers to college by offering open admissions and remedial courses. On one level these policies have succeeded—enrollment in public community colleges increased fivefold from 1960 to 1990.
But those numbers tell only one side of the story. Rosenbaum’s research shows that 92 percent of students with low grades planning to earn an A.A. failed to do so—even higher than the 86 percent of those who abandoned their plans to earn a BA. He discovered that in some city colleges the dropout rate is as high as 80 percent.
"We’re deceiving students by not warning them," Rosenbaum says. . .
Rosenbaum likens today’s situation to a confidence game—students are initially led to believe they can obtain something easily. By the time they realize it’s a false promise, it’s too late to get out of the predicament. School staff members may have good intentions when they withhold information, but it is harmful to students’ careers. "When students fail they blame themselves. They think, ‘It’s all my fault." When they drop out they see no hope in getting a job. They feel terrible going through a job search. The really sad thing is that it’s so easily avoidable."
In short, students with low grades should at least hear from their guidance counselors that they are setting themselves up to fail by trying to go to college, and that college isn't the only option.
He argues that American high schools should follow the model of German and Japanese high schools which play a central role in job placement for non-college bound students, convince employers to care about high school grades that are otherwise irrelevant to students not bound for college, and "provide assessment of so-called 'soft skills'—deportment, attendance, sociability—that employers desire."
He notes that the skilled trades and clerical jobs are preferrable to the service sector dead end jobs where many kids out of high school who are not bound for college end up.
Almost all the professors who taught G.I. Bill students came away with stories about how these older college students were better prepared and more focused than those coming straight out of a high school, something that is directly contrary to the evidence that those who take time out after high school are less likely to graduate.
The two stories don't need to be contradictory, however. Even if college is the right choice for a large percentage of people, many of them are not ready for it in their late teens, and need a number of years to mature and get serious about life before they are ready. The statistics focus on students not starting college immediately who are only briefly out of high school, and many colleges are ill designed for the lives of older students, who, if they go to school full time need a more intensive experience than two sixteen week semesters a year, themselves awash in parties (a theme Regis University in Denver has made a mantra of its marketing). Maybe if we created an easier way for people who have been out of high school for a while to take up college later in life, more people would go to college when they were really ready, rather than when the calendar told them to do so.