Friday, December 11, 2009

Survey Addresses Drop-Outs

Public Agenda's recent report "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them" is subtitled "Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College." It's essential reading for anyone interested in student retention. Citing an average 40% six year graduation rate for four-year degrees, the report tries to answer the "why?" question with a survey of 600 young adults who had first hand experience. The complete methodology can be found here. The report is released under the creative commons license.

The demographic characteristics of those surveyed belie the image of a typical college student. Quoting from the article:
  • Among students in four-year schools, 45 percent work more than 20 hours a week.
  • Among those attending community colleges, 6 in 10 work more than 20 hours a week, and more than a quarter work more than 35 hours a week.
  • Just 25 percent of students attend the sort of residential college we often envision.
  • Twenty-three percent of college students have dependent children.
The main part of the report is framed around "myths and realities," such as:
MYTH NO. 1: Most students go to college full-time. If they leave without a degree, it’s because they’re bored with their classes and don’t want to work hard.

REALITY NO. 1: Most students leave college because they are working to support themselves and going to school at the same time. At some point, the stress of work and study just becomes too difficult.
According to the survey, "Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent)."

Graphs display ranked survey items. A portion is shown below.

The third section addresses an issue that I've discovered independently.
MYTH NO. 3: Most students go through a meticulous process of choosing their college from an array of alternatives.

REALITY NO. 3: Among students who don’t graduate, the college selection process is far more limited and often seems happenstance and uninformed.
My retention study at one institution showed that students whose had reported on the CIRP that they were at their first-choice college had three other interesting characteristics. One was that they tended to be first-generation students. They also were by far at the highest risk for attrition. And in a subsequent survey two months after the CIRP, many of them had changed their minds about the first-choice qualification. In short, they were uninformed consumers and became quickly disaffected--or at least, that's the way I interpreted the data.

The survey asked for proposals to help other students get a degree. The top responses are shown below.

The other two "myths" presented in the report are:
MYTH NO. 2: Most college students are supported by their parents and take advantage of a multitude of available loans, scholarships, and savings plans.

REALITY NO. 2: Young people who fail to finish college are often going it alone financially. They’re essentially putting themselves through school.
MYTH NO. 4: Students who don’t graduate understand fully the value of a college degree and the consequences and trade-offs of leaving school without one.

REALITY NO. 4: Students who leave college realize that a diploma is an asset, but they may not fully recognize the impact dropping out of school will have on their future.
Much more information and analysis is available on the report itself. I'm not crazy about post hoc retention surveys because if we want real predictors, we need to find out information before students leave, and afterwards causes and effects may change over time in the minds of the students, as with the first-choice question noted above. On the other hand, this report is thoughtfully done, and does seem to illuminate some interesting issues.

There is a section on what can be done to help. Providing more financial aid for part-time students is one, as well as more flexible options for attending. I presume that online courses would fill the second bill nicely. It seems obvious that more work-study options on campus would help too--a double win for the college, since students will be more engaged, and provide cheap labor. Addressing child-care problems for students ought to be high on the list too.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:51 PM

    I'm not sure what you're going to learn by studying a universe of "students who drop out." As made clear in your "myth" and "reality" section, there are different kinds of schools that cater to different kinds of students. It seems if you break out the different kinds of schools (very selective, selective, etc.; or research university, state branch university, etc.) you're going to get different kinds of answers to your question. Your conclusions about the larger universe of students doesn't surprise me, and shouldn't surprise anyone. However, I wonder how those conclusions would hold up for a highly selective four-year liberal arts college?
    Bob Fuller (college drop out who earned a B.A. fourteen years after first entering college)