With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them

I recently had the chance to read a research report titled “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” published by Public Agenda with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  The authors of the report surveyed over 600 young adults between the ages of 22 and 30.  The purpose of the survey was to compare the answers of students who dropped out of college to the answers of students who graduated within the three year (for community colleges) or six year (for four-year colleges) standards as measured by the U.S. Department of Education.  Jean Johnson and Jon Rochkind, along with Amber Ott and Samantha DuPont, wanted to validate the reasons why students depart from colleges before graduating and see if the students themselves offered reasons different than many of the recent research studies.

The authors point out that according to the U.S. Department of Education, only 20 percent of community college students graduate within three years and only 40 percent of four year college students graduate within six years.  In fact, only 27 percent of college students attend the traditional residential college that most people envision as the idyllic college environment.  Even more telling of the changes in college student profiles, 45 percent of students attending four year colleges reported working more than 20 hours per week and 60 percent of students attending two year colleges reported working more than 20 hours per week.

Data from the survey indicates that the number one reason students cite for dropping out of college is that they had to work and attend school at the same time and the stress of doing both caused them to leave school eventually.  Balancing work and school was a bigger barrier for them than financing the cost of an education (54 percent versus 31 percent).  Only 10 percent of students who left college cited boredom as the reason.  Over 55 percent of students surveyed stated that they had to work full-time and that they did not see how they could work full-time and go to school at the same time.

Nearly six out of 10 people in the study who left college stated that they had to pay for college themselves without parental support.  In addition, their process for selecting the college of their choice was much less rigorous than most people imagine.   Nearly two-thirds of those students who did not complete college stated that they selected a college because of its convenient location to them while 60 percent chose their college because its schedule worked with theirs and 57 percent selected a college because its tuition and fees were affordable.

Affordability and access have an ongoing theme with some of the survey responses, similar to the two key themes from the final report of the Spellings Commission.  Approximately 80 percent of students who dropped out indicated that more financial aid should be available for part-time students and that more college classes should be offered at nights and on weekends.  Nearly the same percentage stated that the cost of attending college should be cut by 25 percent.  Approximately 57 percent indicated that it would be helpful if there were more classes offered online.  Over 60 percent of all students surveyed (graduates and dropouts) stated that most people do not have the opportunity to go to college.

While the survey results were interesting, there were not many findings that surprised me.  The data from the Measuring Up annual reports indicate that many Americans cannot afford college.  The growth of online programs at both for-profit and non-profit institution demonstrate the need for adult students to attend an institution whose courses are available on their time schedule.  The request for federal student aid for part-time students is long overdue, and if there were one item from this study that I would recommend policy makers to consider, it would be that recommendation.  Data from the U.S. Department of Education confirms that 73 percent of today’s college students do not meet the traditional profile of full-time, residential students.  The financial aid system rewards full-time students and penalizes part-time students, particularly those who work full time.  With our president’s goal of having more Americans attain college degrees, finding ways to make a college education more affordable should be a national imperative.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence