Only one in five of those who enroll in two-year institutions earn an associate degree within three years, and only two in five of those who start four-year colleges complete their degrees within six years.Then some attempts at an explanation, based on a survey of 600 people aged 22 to 30:
The study, which has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points, found substantial differences between those who completed a degree and those who did not. Among those who dropped out, nearly 6 in 10 got no help from their parents in paying tuition. Among those who got degrees, more than 6 in 10 had tuition help from their families.
About 7 in 10 of the dropouts said they had no scholarship or loan aid. Among those who got degrees, only about four in 10 went without such aid.
Almost three-quarters of those who completed a degree had household incomes above $35,000. Among the dropouts, more than half had household incomes below $35,000. And while 7 in 10 of the college graduates had parents who had completed at least some college work, four in 10 of the dropouts had parents with nothing beyond a high school diploma.
Colleges need to be aware, the report emphasized, that only about a quarter of those enrolled in higher education fit the popular image of a college student living in a dorm and attending classes full time. Almost as many have dependent children.
The top reason the dropouts gave for leaving college was that it was just too hard to support themselves and go to school at the same time. Balancing work and school was a bigger barrier than finding money for tuition, they said. In fact, more than a third of the dropouts said that even if they got a grant that covered their books and tuition, it would be hard to go back to school, given their work and family commitments.
Some of this boils down to family: the middle-class children of college educated parents are much more likely to finish college than anyone else. Money is an issue but not the main issue; I would be willing to bet that a fair number of poor students who are getting no financial aid could get something if they knew how and made the effort.
When people study the psychological differences between poor people and middle class people, they keep turning up differences in the attitude toward time. Middle class people think more in the long term and plan more for the future; poor people live more in the present, which is all they can handle. College is a long-term thing. It is designed to teach, not skills you can put to work tomorrow, but ways of thinking that will benefit you over the course of your life. It also requires you to put various goals, especially financial goals, on hold for years while you do stuff that often seems irrelevant. Since a college diploma often discriminates, in our world, between those who will be in the middle class from those who won't, it reinforces these differences. It is obviously much easier to think in the long term when the short term is not a struggle to make ends meet, feed children, and the like.
So if we really want to get more Americans to graduate from four-year colleges, which is an Obama administration goal, I see two possible approaches: get more students to study full time, live in dorms, and generally avoid the entanglements of adult life, and redesign some curricula to address the immediate needs of young working people.