Race To The Finish: Dropping in on College Dropouts

Thanks to a decades-long focus on improving access to college, nearly seven in ten Americans today enroll in some form of postsecondary education within two years of leaving high school. That’s a record number, and it is impressive. But it also obscures another reality. Lurking in the shadows is a more sobering statistic: Not much more than half of college students -- some 57 percent -- earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

In short, colleges are getting more people to start a race they cannot finish. In fact, college graduation rates are increasing in every developed country except for the United States, according to Grantmakers for Education (GfE). Individual success is hindered, as is the nation’s competitive global edge.

Over the past couple months the college dropout issue has been getting the increasing attention it deserves. Last month, President Obama called for the nation to regain the world lead in college completion by 2020. (The U.S. currently ranks No. 12.) Philanthropy is stepping up, too. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation just launched a $12-million initiative with the National League of Cities to boost college graduation rates in four cities. The Intel Foundation, led by Shelly Esque and championed by Intel CEO Paul Otellini, has sponsored competitions to incent and reward achievement in science and math, thus encouraging dazzling stars in the next generation, not only to do well in high school, but to excel in college and in life. And the Lumina Foundation has announced a $14.8 million, four-year national effort to help adults with “some college” -- even those decades removed from attending school -- complete their degree.

Over the summer GfE released From Access to Success, a funders guide to improving college graduation rates, relating key themes from a spring meeting in Washington with prominent researchers, higher education leaders and officials from the U.S. Department of Education. In addition to describing the reasons too many students don’t complete college, the short GfE guide offers ideas for funders. Among these: Convene K-12, higher education and private industry leaders to better define college- and career-readiness; help schools and districts strengthen the quality of student counseling and college preparation; and help build will among policymakers and the public to support adequate funding of community colleges, which are entry points for many into the larger, postsecondary system.

But in addition to dangling carrots, the guide also offers prodding with sticks. It calls on grantmakers to hinge institutional support on efforts at improving college retention, including better tracking and analyzing of data. According to the guide, basing funding on course and degree completion rather than mere enrollment will push schools to focus on true progress.