The College Completion Crisis

Over 17 million students are now seeking a 2 or 4 year degrees at American colleges and universities, but many will never complete their studies.  For example, in Illinois only 19% of community college students will ever graduate, and only 68% of those seeking a Bachelor’s degree will finish.  This crisis of college completion affects every state in our nation, and the reasons why so many fail to finish need to be examined—as do ideas for turning the tide so that so much human potential is no longer wasted.

I recommend that those who are interested in a thoughtful and thorough examination of this problem read the report compiled by Complete College America entitled Time is the Enemy.  Word by word, analysis by analysis, and chart after frightening chart, this document details the nationwide college completion crisis.  Moreover, as this report explains, minority, low-income, and part-time students are far more likely to leave college with nothing but debt in hand.

Let us be plain: Those students who need to start college in remedial courses are by far the least likely to succeed.  Many argue this means we are simply pushing too many students who are not that interested in college into higher education, and there may be some merit to this argument.  However, given the extraordinary percentage of incoming students who require remediation across our nation, it is also worth asking how our public education system can grant high school diplomas to so many academically unprepared graduates.  Moreover, many students—regardless whether they require remedial coursework or not—are lacking the self-discipline necessary for college success, which perhaps points to the ubiquity of public school curricula that reward minimal effort and lax work habits.

Or is this simply, as so many claim, a reflection of a society in which our nation’s schools are forced to deal with too many children who are born to parents who cannot successfully be parents?

There is certainly evidence this sometimes might be the problem; anyone who has stood in front of a classroom has seen students who are buried by the weight of their own family dysfunction.  However, those who automatically blame the college completion crisis on single mothers who work long hours, absent fathers who play little daily role in parenting, and a troubled culture where children are exposed to violent images and experience much personal upheaval could perhaps benefit from a look back—about 75 years or so—at our nation’s history.

There was perhaps no time in recent United States history when there were quite so many mothers working long hours and raising children on their own, fathers were quite so absent, and American daily life was less stable and quite so saturated in the daily threat of bloody violence as during World War Two.  Nonetheless, that generation of children and adolescents not only survived but thrived under the most difficult of circumstances.  Perhaps the circumstances surrounding this time in American history were unique, but an equally reasonable case certainly can be made that it is both facile and fallacious to simply blame parents and society for every educational failing of today’s children.

We need change—even more so because our college students are themselves changing.  Traditional college students now comprise only 25% of our undergraduate population; the rest are juggling some combination of school, work, and family.  Rather than continue to insist that square pegs must somehow be made to fit into round holes, we should press forward on two fronts in order to better accommodate the needs of today’s students.

First, we should develop a free and comprehensive system of online instructional tools to help students refresh skills that may have either deteriorated during time away from school—or were never learned in the first place.  Rather than immediately place students into full-tuition remedial courses, we need to push them to first take personal responsibility for their own academic deficits in order to both reduce the semesters spent on remedial coursework and emphasize those skills of study and self-discipline that are critical for educational success.  Remedial classroom courses should, of course, still be available, but encouraging students to first use online tools in order to avoid incurring excessive debt for non-college coursework could benefit many.

In addition, we must grant academic credit to many more students for lifetime learning in order to prevent non-traditional students, who often have spent many years in the workforce or military, from wasting time and money on coursework they may not need because they have already learned those skills elsewhere.  A more comprehensive system of Credit-for-Prior-Learning options, when more fully integrated into our institutions of higher learning, might also allow us to bend the cost curve and improve affordability for a broad range of students in the years ahead.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( September 28, 2014

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