Mar 10, 2010

Why College Students Drop Out

In the first of three studies commissioned by the Gates Foundation, Public Agenda looked at why so many students who start college never finish their degrees. The findings, published in “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” challenge traditional assumptions about college-bound students, the college selection process, and how students transition to college.

According to the US Department of Education, fewer than 60 percent of students who begin higher education at four-year institutions receive a degree within six years. And these statistics reflect an average—at some institutions, the numbers are truly disturbing.

Traditional explanations for the failure of so many students to complete degrees focus on rising tuition costs, poor academic preparation and study skills, insufficient student support and advisory services at postsecondary institutions, and the pressure to go on to college even when interest isn’t there.

Probing these theories, the Gates study surveyed 600 young adults, aged 22 to 30. Answers were compared between those who started college but did not complete and those who had successfully completed two- or four-year college programs. The findings might surprise you:

1. Most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time--the stress of work and study simply becomes too much. The US Department of Education reports that among students in four-year colleges, about 6 in 10 work more than 20 hours per week and more than a quarter work in excess of 35 hours each week. At some point—usually in the first year—it all gets too difficult according to survey respondents.

2. Students who fail to finish college are often on their own financially—they’re essentially putting themselves through school. Studies, including this one, show that young people who leave college without a degree are more likely to come from less privileged backgrounds and are substantially less likely to have received scholarships, financial aid, or loans.

3. Among students who don’t graduate, the college selection process is far more limited and often seems “happenstance and uninformed.” According to this survey, many students, especially those who fail to get their diploma, barely go through any college selection process at all. For those who dropped out, the process seemed more matter of “chance or location, not the pursuit of a specific goal or future career.”

4. Students who leave college are aware that a diploma is an asset, but they may not fully recognize the impact of dropping out on their future. Most young people acknowledge that having a college degree pays off. Those who did not complete degrees, however, are less likely to feel “passionately” about the value of college and are less likely to have had strong parental or counselor support relative to their college prospects.

To learn more about the Gates study or read the entire report, go to the Public Agenda website.


  1. I followed the link and read the study, but it seems to me that many students drop out because they are not academically ready for college. Maybe they did not develop skills properly in high school, or maybe they just do not have the "brains" to succeed in college and the student either flunks out or is asked to leave. I think the Gates study focued too much on the financial aspects, and maybe that is the fault of the methodology, because dropouts are more likely to blame finances than their own shortcomings.

    As a parent with a son with a checkered HS career, I am focusing on colleges with good graduation rates, and that provide support to students who may need it. I like the National Survey of Student Engagement, because it quantifies whether a college is a supportive environment.

  2. I certainly agree with you about the focus on finances, but don't underestimate the importance of the counseling component in helping students discover the right "fit" among colleges. Although reasons number 3 and 4 hint at these issues, the second Gates report more directly addresses the controversy.

    You've obviously filled in the blanks for your son, but not every college-bound high school student has the advantage of having a mentor or adviser who does the kind of detailed research you're doing on his behalf. Graduation (and freshman retention) rates are very important, and NSSE is another good tool where that information is made available.

  3. Excellent article! These facts are the reason I started my website, Dropout City provides college dropouts with tools, articles, and discussion forums to help ease their dropout experience and help them succeed without a degree.

    Feel free to check it out. Even if you aren't a dropout, you could contribute to helping a college dropout find success.