By Bob Hildreth
College graduation ceremonies are just on the horizon. While young graduates are proudly throwing their caps in the air, we must not forget thatforty-one percent of U.S. college students are not graduating with their class and they will not graduate within six years of enrolling either. Millions of students will have to repay thousands of dollars in student debt without a degree to show for it.
There are many reasons for students failing to graduate. The usual suspects of poor grades and earning too few credits are only a part of the story. But there are hidden factors, mostly financial in nature. The cost of tuition and fees, the cost of travel, room and board, the costs associated with living away from home and family, the cost of child care, the prospect of accumulating debt, a feeling of not fitting into the college culture, and the loss of income while studying are all important contributing factors.
Colleges may not have necessary student resources to identify or address the problems struggling students face. Many of these colleges, both public and private, have suffered budget cuts resulting from diminished state funding or failure to meet their enrollment and revenue targets. The result is almost always a tuition increase, making a student’s financial problem increasingly worse.
As grants and scholarships fail to keep up with tuition rates, we are witnessing an increase in borrowing among low-income, Pell eligible, and minority students. While 84 percent of graduates who received Pell Grants graduatewith debt, this percentage is less than half (46%) for non-Pell recipients. Again, while 81 percent of black graduate public schools with debt, only 63 percent of white students graduate with the same burden.
It is not surprising that students who come from disadvatageous background are more likely to drop out and suffer the consequences of leaving school without a degree and unmanageable debt. Among children born to low-wealth families in the 1980s, only 11.8 percent went on to complete a bachelor’s degree.
We need to do more for students who are enrolled but unable to graduate with a degree, and we need to rethink what options we present them. We are not talking about a minority here, these students represent about half of the student population. We need to find translatable ways for courses they have completed to be used in finding jobs, certificates of completion for course bundles that prepare a student for further work, or combined with credit for life experience.
Ultimately, if we want students to repay their debt and contribute to the economy, we must work on how we can make those with some college experience more marketable, particularly with respect to demonstrated ambition and motivation and an aptitude for learning in non-academic settings. For some employers, those with a few college credits and experience can be more qualified for jobs than inexperienced graduates who have to be trained by the employers. Or else, their debt will not only burden them, but our economy and the taxpayers who will ultimately have to foot the bill of large federal loan program rigged with bad debt.
Students who drop-out of college may feel like failures but, in truth, our own narrow thinking about them is failing them.