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The college dropout rate at four-year colleges – Reason for concern?

By Lee Cleveland - May 8, 2023

During my college freshman orientation, a motivational speaker told my class of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 17 and 18 years olds, “Look around you, now, because one of three of you won’t graduate.”

At the time, I thought that number was a bit high, and even today I can’t say if his projection was accurate. But yes, now that I think about it, there were a bunch of people in a few of my circles, alone, who dropped out. Some finished only a year while others finished two. In fact, a few even finished their junior year but didn’t return as seniors.

Maybe that speaker was right. If so, things have only gone downhill since my college days.

The path to obtaining a four-year degree is often a challenging one, with many obstacles that can impede students’ progress. A new study authored by Elizabeth Bradley, the President of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, sheds light on some of these challenges.

The study examines four-year college completion rates across the United States, and the results are concerning.

On average, only 51 percent of students who enter college complete their studies. This means that almost half of all students who start college fail to graduate. Even more alarming is the fact that only 10 percent of colleges graduate 80 percent of their students.

Why are completion rates so low?

The study identifies several factors that contribute to low completion rates, including a lack of financial resources, inadequate academic preparation, and poor support systems. However, the study also finds that colleges with fewer resources have lower graduation rates – which are also institutions with more lower-income students and students of color.

However, there is hope. By understanding the challenges that students face, we can work to create more supportive and effective learning environments that help students succeed. One of the most important steps we can take is to provide greater financial resources to colleges and universities, particularly those that serve lower-income students and students of color.

In addition, colleges can work to improve academic preparation by providing more robust and effective remedial programs, and by ensuring that students have access to the resources they need to succeed. This might include additional tutoring, mentorship programs, and more personalized academic advising.

Lastly, while a college degree is still a key factor in securing economic stability and mobility, it’s not the gold standard it once was. For example, numerous state governments have removed the college degree prerequisites for many of their jobs in order to fill vacancies while many companies in the technology industry have long since looked beyond degrees. The CEOs of Tesla and Apple, Elon Musk and Tim Cook, respectively, were vocal with their grievances that higher education institutes do not provide the skills required to thrive in the job market. In fact, in 2019 Cook stated that half of Apple’s U.S. workforce didn’t have four-year degrees.