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With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them

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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.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. Dr. Boston lives in Owings Mills, MD with his wife Sharon and their two daughters.

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