Report: Many College Dropouts Are More Than Halfway to a Degree

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Millions of people across the country — many of whom also have student loan debt — never finished their programs, and a new report suggests nearly 1 in 5 of those students who do not graduate have three-quarters of the credits needed to finish. Targeting student support services to at-risk students near the end of their programs can help more leave with a college education, the report argues.

A new report from Civitas Learning released on Wednesday analyzed data from more than 300,000 students at 53 institutions across the country. It found that nearly 1 in 5 students who drop out of college have 75 percent or more of the credits needed to complete. What’s more, about 1 in 10 who do not finish their programs have 90 percent or more of the credits needed. The researchers suggest that postsecondary institutions "have an immediate opportunity" to help more students finish by adjusting when and how they target their student support services.

Organizations such as the National Student Clearinghouse have estimated that as many as 31 million adults living in the United States have some college education, but no degree. And as it has become increasingly important to obtain some education beyond high school, policymakers have become concerned with the country’s seemingly low college attainment rate, as other countries surpass the United States.

Although the national college attainment rate for young adults between 25 and 29 years old has increased in recent years — the percentage with an associate's degree or higher increased from 38 to 46 percent, and the percentage with a bachelor's degree or higher increased from 29 to 36 percent between 2000 and 2016 — it still falls behind several other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The United States now ranks 10th among OECD countries, but was among the highest in college attainment among 25- to 34-year-olds in 1990. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan frequently said some form of postsecondary education would be critical for individuals — and the country — to succeed in the "global economy."

Research has also shown that the borrowers who often struggle the most in repaying their debt are those who have relatively small amounts of cumulative debt, but leave school with no degree or credential.

The new report from Civitas argues that institutions should shift their focus from solely targeting retention efforts to students in their first few semesters in college, and also find ways to encourage students at the end of their programs to see it through.

"Finding ways to help these near-completers cross the finish line is an important and achievable goal for institutions focused on near-term completion outcomes," the report said. "This is important not only for first-time students at the near-completion threshold, but also returning students, the majority of whom—despite going back to college with credit hours to their name—still do not graduate within six years."

Over the years, many colleges have turned to implementing some form of financial incentive to encourage students to take more credits each semester and graduate on time.

One institution highlighted in the report that shifted its focus recently is Del Mar College, a two-year institution in Texas. Last year, the college set a goal to increase graduation applications by 5 percent, and ultimately increased that number by 26 percent the next year.

After identifying students who were 75 percent or more complete in their programs, the college sent personalized emails with degree requirements and deadlines. Students with "middle to low persistence predictions" also received phone calls and invitations for face-to-face meetings with graduation coaches. The college also provided workshops, tutoring, and career coaching, among other support services.

"The insight about the importance of the final sprint to completion was an important discovery that led to major improvements in student success at Del Mar College," said Mark Escamillia, Del Mar College president, in a statement. "By focusing our advising outreach on students who completed 75 percent or more of the credit threshold for a degree, we were able to connect with students at the right moment and ensure they were prepared to cross the finish line, graduate and advance in their career."

The University of Texas at Arlington took a similar approach with its nursing bachelor’s degree program. The institution identified nearly 300 students who already received an associate degree before applying to the bachelor’s degree program, and found they were all within one to two credits of finishing their degrees. The institution sent those students emails with information on how to register for graduation or enroll for classes during the summer term. All but one of the 294 students either graduated or enrolled for the summer, the report said.

"While we know the first semesters are critical for ensuring a student starts strong, the end of the journey can be equally important and challenging. Our research has found that a significant numbers of these near-completers may actually be in good academic standing and quite close to the ultimate goal of earning a certification or degree," said Mark Milliron, Civitas Learning co-founder and chief learning officer, in a statement. "Put simply, to significantly improve student success rates, we need to use targeted advising and outreach to ensure that students get a strong finish, as well as a strong start."


Publication Date: 5/10/2018

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