There are several causes for concern today regarding the American Higher Education system. Scholars and experts argue for financial aid reform, improvements in access, expanding diversity initiatives, and so on. I agree that these areas, amongst others, certainly require serious attention, but, at the moment, I believe that students, as well as the general public are beginning to lose trust in American higher education. This lack of trust manifests itself through college drop-outs and state budget cuts to public colleges.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the college drop out rate in America ranks dead last among 18 of the most developed nations in the world—only graduating 46% of the students who began their undergraduate studies. That’s worse than former Soviet bloc countries Slovakia (63%) and Poland (61%). Another interesting point is that 78% of students enrolled at American for-profit institutions fail to graduate within six years.
These college drop-outs aren’t only paying a bill on an education they haven’t fully completed, they’re backing out of investments in higher education made by the American taxpayer. A study performed by the American Institute for Research (AIR) concluded that $4.5 billion was lost in general income and state and federal income taxes because of college drop-outs.
"Taxpayers have paid billions of dollars in subsidies to support these students as they pursue degrees they will never earn, and as a nation, we incur billions in lost earnings and lost income taxes each year," said Mark Schneider, Vice President at AIR.
With a 46% graduation rate and a loss of $4.5 billion in tax revenue, we’re left to wonder: How can we retain our college students? And how can we assure taxpayers will see a better return on their investments in American higher education?
The answer? Data. Data-mining. Quantitative/Qualitative analyses. Algorithms. Number-crunching. Whatever you want to call it. The community of prospective undergraduates, current undergraduates, University faculty and staff, parents, and taxpayers deserve more transparency, communication, and assistance in graduating students. Incoming freshmen should have the opportunity to sit down with an advisor and review his/her statistical chances on graduating based on competitive variables such as high school GPA, high school curriculum, SAT scores, but undiscussed variables like socio-economic status, high school alma mater success rate, on-campus student vs. off-campus student grades, intended major success rate, etc.
Being armed with statistical strengths and weaknesses can better prepare students for challenges unique to his/her own. Universities can strategize and assist those students in improving their standing (i.e. part-time job placement, focused tutoring sessions, faculty or upperclassmen mentoring, etc.). But even more so, students can band together with other students who share the same obstacles—creating cohorts that provide academic, social, and emotional support. These cohorts, challenges, and support systems are evident in students who’ve partaken in the Posse Foundation.
Today the Posse Foundation selects about 600 students a year, from eight different cities. They are grouped into posses of 10 students from the same city and go together to an elite college; about 40 colleges now participate in the program.
The Posse Foundation groups 10 students with similar characteristics (urban students who possess creativity, intelligence, and resiliency, but may have sub-standard SAT scores) and place them at a liberal arts college. Participants in Posse boast a 90% graduation rate—significantly above the national average. While every member of Posse receives a scholarship covering the full cost of tuition—eliminating the barrier of economic hardship—these students serve to help each other in regards to their academic, social, and emotional challenges in college.
The same NY Times article, featuring Posse, furthers my point of student retention. Apparently DePauw University created small freshmen cohorts, pairing them with upperclassmen mentors. In this setting they discussed time management, the risks of drinking, and preparing for mid-terms. In addition, they delayed fraternity and sorority recruitment by one week in order for these freshman cohorts to create stronger rapport from within. In one year, DePauw saw an increase in freshman retention from 86, 87% to 91, 92%.
While the cost of higher education in America desperately needs to be reduced, those who are making the investment—the prospective and current students as well as the taxpayers—should be able to rely on tactical measures made by University practitioners in keeping more than half of our college students in the classroom! It would be prudent for University administrators to take heed to this advice because it’s becoming clear that—through the increase in college drop-outs and state budget cuts—investors are becoming disillusioned by the high price of a college education.