Record numbers of students flocked to college campuses this fall with high hopes of obtaining what many say is the new prerequisite for a middle-class life: a college degree. But the harsh reality is that little more than half those bright-eyed college freshmen, on average, will actually finish.
The gap between access and completion has put a new focus on ramping up retention—the percentage of freshmen who return to the same institution for a second year of college. And that’s a task, observers say, for precollegiate educators as well as their college counterparts.
Just as there are multiple reasons for dropping out—from money to academics to lack of direction—there is a range of initiatives emerging to boost college completion. Counselors and mentors are texting students to remind them of tests, connecting families with financial-aid sources, and guiding students through the social transition to college.
Many programs are showing promise, but they often are short term and light touch rather than intensive, said Susan Scrivener, a senior associate at MDRC, a New York City-based research organization. “It’s important to turn toward more-comprehensive, longer-lasting programs,” she said. “They have more potential to make a really big difference.”
When students fail to graduate, they lose out on tuition money and time spent pursuing a degree—and often are in student-loan debt that can set them back years. They’re also losing the potential earning power that comes with a college degree—as much as $1 million more than someone with a high school diploma alone, according to recent research. And college dropouts cost society in potential tax contributions and unrealized creativity.
Retention rates have been relatively unchanged for decades, hovering around 67 percent. Students are more likely to return for a second year of college at four-year public or private colleges, where retention rates were about 74 percent in the 2011 surveys conducted by ACT Inc., the testing and research company based in Iowa City, Iowa. Recently, however, community colleges have shown improvement. Retention rates at two-year public colleges climbed from 51 percent in 2004 to 56 percent in 2011—the second-highest level since 1989.
The ACT survey found colleges’ top retention strategies were: freshman seminars, tutoring programs, advisory interventions, mandated course-placement testing programs, and comprehensive learning-assistance centers or labs. Read more.