The Hechinger Report

More high school grads than ever are going to college, but 1 in 5 will quit

The line between Texas and Arkansas in front of the bi-state federal building, which straddles both. Texas A&M University at Texarkana has one of the lowest retention rates of public higher-education institutions; 55 percent who started in 2012 were gone by 2016.

TEXARKANA, Texas — New buildings are shooting up around the sun-baked grounds of the Texas A&M University System’s northernmost outpost here.

There’s a $32 million glass-fronted complex near completion that will house the nursing program and administrative offices, and a new $11 million recreation center that will also have a lab to study kinesiology, or human movement.

TAMU-Texarkana may be the smallest of the system’s 11 campuses, but it’s been growing steadily. Enrollment at the beginning of the academic year just ended was up 13 percent from 2014, to 2,038.

While the number of students has been rising, however, so has the proportion who begin as full-time freshmen but fail to come back for a second year. Fifty-five percent who started in 2015 were gone by the following year, the most recent period for which the figures are available, according to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by The Hechinger Report. That’s up from 44 percent two years before.

“There are some people who have situations, who get pregnant or financial things change,” said Caleb Sparks, a double major in biology and electrical engineering hanging out between classes in the air-conditioned student center.

“I know of people who have left because they didn’t want to be in college,” added Amber Spence, who earned her undergraduate degree here and is now a graduate student. “Their parents made them go.” And even on a small campus where students greet each other by name, she said, “There are still individuals who feel lonely and isolated.”

These and other challenges mean that, at a time when growing proportions of high school students have been successfully encouraged to go on to college, more than one in five full-time freshmen nationwide fail to return for a second year, according to the data.

That, in turn, contributes to the fact that more than a third of students who start college still haven’t earned degrees after six years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports, often piling up loan debt with no payoff. Those who disappear for good cost colleges and universities — including taxpayer-supported public ones like TAMU-Texarkana — billions of dollars in lost tuition revenue.

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Students who are the first in their families to go to college are the most affected. Three years after enrolling, one-third had quit, compared to about a quarter of students whose parents have a university degree, the Education Department reports.

Yet even as attention has begun to be focused on this problem and its massive cost, the numbers are barely improving, The Hechinger Report found. At some types of institutions, they’re flat or getting worse, according to the data.

“It’s not just about getting them in the door. It’s about making sure they come back from one year to the next,” said Eboni Zamani-Gallaher, a professor of higher education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Education. “That’s the conundrum we still haven’t gotten figured out yet.”

In a trend that has been widely lauded, the proportion of high school graduates who go straight to college has increased from 63 percent in 2000 to 70 percent now, the Department of Education says.

The proportion of high school graduates going on to college has been rising, but the proportion who stay once they get there is flat or down, new federal data show.

But the proportion of full-time, first-time students who return for a second year, either full- or part-time — a measure called retention — has improved only slightly at public four-year universities, where it is up by 2.6 percentage points since 2011, the federal data show. At private nonprofit colleges, it’s eked up by just 1.3 percentage points. And at private for-profit colleges and universities, more than 44 percent of students leave before finishing, a figure that is eight-tenths of a percentage points worse than it was in 2011.

In all, more than a million students a year quit college, according to the consulting firm ReUp Education, which helps universities with the time-consuming and expensive process of trying to find and re-enroll them. Some may transfer and finish somewhere else; the federal figures don’t track that. But many are assumed to have dropped out.

Retention Rates
Rates at which full-time freshmen return to college for a second year, either full- or part-time.
2011 2016
All schools 78.5% 80.8%
Public 78.6% 81.1%
Private not-for-profit 80.2% 81.6%
Private for-profit 56.5% 55.7%
Source: Hechinger Report analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Four-year institutions only, from the most recent period available.

That’s partly because schools have historically focused more on recruiting students than on keeping them, said Alan Seidman, founder and director of the Center for the Study of College Student Retention, who once worked as an admissions director. [mc4wp_form id="28586"] “It was my job to get student enrolled, and if you didn’t enroll them your job could be on the line,” he said. There was no such incentive for retention, he said. “So philosophy follows finance rather than the other way around.” New realities are conspiring to make higher-education institutions try to finally fix this. One is that legislatures and governors in many states are tying university budgets to such things as retention. At least 32 states now make funding contingent on success rates, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including the number of degrees awarded and student progress toward degrees.

Another: Employers are impatient for qualified graduates to hire. “People are talking about shortages in the workforce,” said Zoë Corwin, a researcher at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California. “I’m optimistic that there’s been a national shift in awareness in how we think of this, so that’s promising.”

Related: States use direct mail, money to get more of their residents back to college

But the biggest reason for the new focus on preventing students from leaving is that colleges are starting to run out of them.

While a larger percentage of high school graduates are going on to higher educations, their actual numbers have declined dramatically, and the number of older-than-traditional-age adults on campus is also down as more are drawn back into the thriving labor market.

These trends together mean that there are nearly 2.9 million fewer college students than there were at the most recent peak, in 2011, the National Student Clearinghouse reports.

And that makes institutions “a little more sensitive to retention,” Zamani-Gallaher said.

After all, the plummeting number of prospects makes it much harder to replace dropouts than it was when there was a seemingly bottomless supply of freshmen.

“There’s a growing notion that we need to change the business model, and the reason it needs to change is there’s not a never-ending flow of high school graduates,” said Bruce Vandal, senior vice president at Complete College America.

Students who leave are also costing colleges significant amounts of money in forgone tuition — $16.5 billion a year collectively, according to a review of 1,669 institutions by the Educational Policy Institute, or $13.3 million for the average public and nearly $10 million for the typical private college or university. Those are big hits for campuses already struggling to close budget shortfalls.

Related: Transfer students start getting more of the credits they’ve already earned

Yet colleges remain focused on recruitment, “which they already know how to do,” said Andrew Nichols, senior director of higher education research at The Education Trust. “It’s harder work to retain students.”

They may no longer be able to avoid it.

While state higher education funding in Texas doesn’t consider institutions’ retention rates, the TAMU System makes them glaringly public in an online dashboard.

“The world of higher education has really changed about this,” said Emily Fourmy Cutrer, president of TAMU-Texarkana, where student persistence is the lowest of the system’s 10 campuses. “We are under more pressure for retention and graduation.”

Reminders have popped up all around the campus about a website called Degree Works, which tells students which requirements they’ve satisfied and what’s still left to do. “Not sure you’re on the right track for graduation?” it calls out to passersby from among notices on bulletin boards advertising class rings and intramural ultimate Frisbee.

There are also tutoring centers and a program called Personal Achievement Through Help, or PATH, to keep black male students on track. While college enrollment for black males is up, according to the U.S. Department of Education, black students in general graduate at lower rates than others, the College Board reports; at a third of colleges and universities studied by The Education Trust, graduation rates for black students have been flat or falling and men of all races graduate at lower rates than women except at for-profit universities.

“They have all these safety nets — tutoring, advising,” said Camryn Davis, a TAMU-Texarkana sophomore majoring in biotechnology. “We actually do get flags when the advisor forces you to come and see them.” Those kinds of reminders happen “pretty much all semester,” said Hailee Witten, a senior education major. “There’s posters, there’s emails. They hag you.” Witten stopped to reflect on whether she just made up that word, but then described it as a combination of “hassle” and “nag.”

This aggressive response has helped lower the dropout rate at the Texarkana campus back to 44 percent, according to still-unreleased figures, the university says. Between the fall and spring, it said, only 11 percent of students left, a record low.

Related: More Hispanics are going to college. The bad news? They’re still behind

“We have interventional advising, and that’s not a bad thing,” said Cutrer, who wears an eagle pin in honor of the university’s athletics mascot. She said supporting students has become a top priority. “Woe to the faculty member who says, ‘My class is a weed-out class.’ That is not a thing any more.”

But making further headway is stymied by the nature of the problem. Colleges don’t always know someone is in danger of leaving until he or she stops showing up. It’s also difficult, under a federal ban on tracking individual students, to know if they enrolled or finished somewhere else.

Nor are academic problems necessarily the major reason students quit. More than 40 percent who leave have grade-point averages of at least 3.0, or a solid B, according to the education consulting company Civitas Learning. A separate report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 500,000 top-scoring high school graduates spanning all races and income levels never earn degrees, most of them because they start but then give up on college.

“It would be great to do an exit interview,” Zamani-Gallaher said. “But we don’t have the benefit of knowing in advance that a student is leaving. We have this lag time in realizing they’re not here.”

Or, as one undergraduate who quit put it, “Leaving was weird. Nobody noticed.”

That comment came in response to a rare endeavor by a higher-education institution: a survey emailed to 10,555 of them in 2014 by the University of Washington to learn why some students left before graduating.

Many of those who answered — fewer than one in five, in spite of a chance at a $200 gift card — said they ran into financial problems or worried about falling too deeply into debt. Forty-one percent said they felt isolated or alone and 39 percent that they didn’t think they were getting their money’s worth. Racial and ethnic minority students were particularly likely to report that their scholarship money ran out or was not renewed, that their families needed them or that the university wouldn’t let them continue because they fell behind in their payments.

Many students balance college and jobs. Cutrer, who teaches a freshman seminar, said six students in her class of 20 told her they worked 40 hours a week, eight worked 30 or more hours and the rest worked at least part time.

“If it’s between earning money and going to class, I’m going to earn money because I have to support people,” said Seidman, author of the new book Crossing the Finish Line: How to Retain and Graduate Your Students. Students “don’t understand the cost-benefit of going to college” — the typically higher wages earned by degree-holders — “and we do a bad job of explaining that.”

Another huge problem is poor preparation that requires remedial education, usually in math or English. At least half a million students a year are placed into such courses, The Hechinger Report has found, and many of them give up in frustration, according to the advocacy organization Complete College America. This, too, hits nonwhite and low-income students hardest; 44 percent of black, 37 percent of low-income and 35 percent of Hispanic students are diverted into remedial classes at four-year universities and colleges and significantly larger percentages at two-year ones.

Black and Hispanic students also disproportionately enroll at community colleges and regional public universities that can’t afford to provide the level of support that better-funded private colleges and public flagships can, a new report by the Center for American Progress shows.

“Access without success is not really solving the problems we need to solve, especially for the most disadvantaged,” said Vandal.

The new federal data about retention generally confirm a close connection with graduation rates, especially for nonwhite students.

In Ohio, for example, three of the seven regional Ohio University campuses — Chillicothe, Eastern and Lancaster — have dropout rates of 46 percent, 48 percent, and 44 percent, respectively. Only 36 percent, 32 percent and 31 percent of their white students graduate within six years, and 50 percent, 25 percent and 5 percent of their black students. (All three campuses enroll comparatively low numbers of Hispanics and Chillicothe and Eastern small numbers of blacks.)

Related: A program helps low-income parents graduate at twice the rate of other community college students

Eastern’s numbers are improving, though Chillicothe’s have gotten worse and Lancaster’s are essentially flat, said Bill Willan, the system’s executive dean for regional higher education. Those figures don’t capture the many students juggling families and jobs who take more than six years to finish, he said, or who enter school planning on bachelor’s degrees but change their minds and get lower-level associate degrees or certificates that also are available to them at Lancaster and Chillicothe.

“If they achieve that credential, that’s a success,” said Willan.

Still, the system has started working with beginning students to declare their majors more quickly, since commitment to a major has been shown to improve retention, Willan said. It’s also bought new software that alerts advisors to students who miss classes or assignments and is expanding career services and helping students figure out what courses they’ll need to get their desired jobs.

“We do have a number of folks who will start with us who for whatever reason are not focused,” Willan said.

Among other reasons, he said, is that rural Ohio, where the regional campuses are located, has very low proportions of people with degrees.

At public Kent State University at Trumbull, 46 percent of students leave, down 17 percentage points since 2006; only 62 percent of white and 1 percent of black students finished with degrees in six years.

That school faces issues including high levels of opioid addiction in the area it serves, said spokesman Bill Burgess; it’s hired a mental-health counselor, added a program this spring to keep students focused on their academics, has teamed up with the nonprofit Gardner Institute to improve retention and is creating an app that will connect struggling students with classmates who can offer them advice and encouragement.

At private, historically black Lincoln University in Missouri, 53 percent of students drop out, the data show. That’s up 4 percentage points since 2006. Only 41 percent of white and 18 percent of black students finished with degrees in six years. The university did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

In general, said Willan, “Attitudes are changing. It used to be there was sort of a feeling that it was up to the student. Now when we look at a student and we see that there’s a challenge for them to overcome, we’re more prone to want to help them overcome the challenge.”

Additional reporting by Dana Amihere.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.