The Dropout Problem

One thing I’ve noticed is that people love to start new things, but we’re not nearly as excited about maintaining things. Flocks of us rush to the gym in January as part of our New Year resolutions, but the gym looks a lot emptier by March. Funders are much more interested in launching a new educational initiative than maintaining an existing one, even if it’s generating results. It’s just much easier to start something than it is to maintain or complete it.

That’s why I wasn’t terribly surprised by recent reports of dropout rates at varying levels of postsecondary education. What I found, with sources:

  • Community college: 61% dropout rate (here)
  • Bachelor’s degree, private college: 26% dropout rate after six years (here)
  • Bachelor’s degree, public college: 38% dropout rate after six years (here)
  • Master’s degree: 23% dropout rate (here)
  • PhD programs: 50% dropout rate (here)

No one enrolls in college planning to drop out, yet more than four in 10 people starting a degree program at some level will fail to complete it. There are many reasons for this: In some cases, students are unprepared for the rigor of postsecondary instruction; in others, financial constraints force them to end their academic careers; and sometimes life circumstances, such as divorce, illness, or family issues, derail your efforts.

Regardless of the reasons, as Bill Gates (one of Harvard’s most famous dropouts) noted, these rates are tragic. The reality is that nine out of 10 new jobs are going to those with a college degree, and the people who fail to earn their two- or four-year degrees are going to find themselves unable to compete. Couple that with the fact that those individuals are likely carrying student loan debt from their failed ventures, and you have hundreds of thousands of young people who have dug themselves a financial and professional hole that will be very hard to escape.

Are there solutions? Absolutely. At the postsecondary level, community colleges are seeing success with the Guided Pathways approach; at the secondary level, a huge number of students are benefiting from a College and Career Pathways strategy, as outlined in Hans’ book, The Power and Promise of Pathways, as well as in the coaching work he’s done with communities across the country (you can find resources and information throughout the NC3T website on this front).

However, while progress is being made, a great deal more work needs to be done, both for the sake of the students dropping out and the employers who need them. We’ll continue to look at promising practices and share them through this blog and our other channels.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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