College Dropouts ‘Cost’ Students’ Dreams and Taxpayers Billions, Report Claims - Higher Education

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College Dropouts ‘Cost’ Students’ Dreams and Taxpayers Billions, Report Claims

by Reginald Stuart

Taxpayers across the country spent more than $9 billion during a five-year span of the last decade, supporting college freshmen who left their respective four-year college or university before starting their sophomore year, according to a new report by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a highly-regarded Washington-based research organization.

The AIR report, “Finishing The First Lap: The Cost of First Year Student Attrition in America’s Four Year Colleges and Universities,” characterizes the dollars “lost” as “staggering” and asserts “we continue to spend far too much money on students who don’t even finish the first lap, let alone fail to cross the finish line.” The report is set for public release today.

“Transparency is the first step to accountability,” says Dr. Mark Schneider, an author of the report, interviewed about its findings. The report makes no recommendations for policy or legal action and has its limitations with respect to the completeness of its research, he says. Still, Schneider says he hopes the findings “add to the discussion” growing in education and policy circles about how to get a better return on taxpayers’ investments.

The AIR report reviews federal and state expenditures by state during the five-year period of 2003-08, the latest period for which comprehensive data are available, the research group says. Its analysis was based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

The report says states appropriated almost $6.2 billion to colleges and universities to help pay for the education of students who did not return for a second year. In addition, the report says, states gave more than $1.4 billion and the federal government more than $1.5 billion in grants to students who did not return for a second year.

The report stressed it was not about why students “fail” but the “high costs of failure.”

“We’ve (President Obama and the higher education community) undertaken a completion agenda without understanding what’s going on,” says Schneider, a vice president at American Institutes for Research and former commissioner of the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

“We can’t let them (educators) off the hook without begging to measure what they are doing. I just wanted to call attention to the size of these losses,” says Schneider, an advocate of performance-based funding who describes himself as fully supportive of President Obama’s college completion goals. 

President Obama has challenged the nation to do what is needed to return the United States by 2020 to the status of global leader with respect to highest proportion of college graduates in the world. Today, the United States ranks ninth worldwide. Educators of all persuasions agree that a key to reversing that trend and reaching President Obama’s goal is boosting retention and graduation rates.

Today, about 30 percent of freshmen “drop out” after their freshman year (that is, do not return to the same school to continue their studies), the AIR report says. Only about 60 percent of students in four-year schools graduate within six years, the AIR report says, reflecting other high education studies.

“The nation will have a difficult time reaching the administration’s policy goals unless we find ways to increase the number of students who return to complete their college degrees,” the report says.

With respect to the AIR report’s limitations, Schneider notes it was based on IPEDS surveys, which he says cover less than half the nation’s college students. Also, he says, the report did not find what percent of total state funds the so-called losses amount to, so readers could put the figures in context of overall government spending. Also, as is true with many dropout reports based on freshman enrollment studies, the AIR study had no way of determining what percentage or how many “dropouts” later returned to their school or some other institution to complete their studies. On that point, Schneider says anecdotal and empirical studies suggest that the number who do return is very small.

“This is all about increasing institutional accountability,” says Schneider. “I don’t mean to blame students. Institutions can and should be doing a better job.”

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