Why Do College Students Drop Out?

Mar 18, 2011

Not every student who begins college will ultimately graduate. But what are the reasons for students dropping out? Is it the institution's fault, a predestined outcome specific to the student or an external factor? A group of scholars recently sought to find out.

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The Problem of College Dropouts

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 59% of first-time students that began seeking bachelor's degrees or the equivalent in 2005 graduated within six years. For certain groups, the numbers are more dire. Only 34% of males graduated in four years, compared to 42% of females. Similarly, only 22.5% of American Indians and Alaska natives graduated within four years. Trying to understand what causes some students to earn their degree in 4-6 years or drop out led to a study called 'A Detection Model of College Withdrawal' commissioned by the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Process.

Why Are Students Dropping Out?

The study collected over twenty possible reasons or 'shocks' for students dropping out. These include events occurring at the school, such as an assault, conflict with a faculty member or departure of a close friend from the institution. Reasons for dropping out also include events occurring outside of the college or university, such as the death of a family member or a marriage.

According to the study, six critical events are the most common reasons for withdrawals: Students are recruited by a job or other institution, receive an unanticipated bad grade, have conflicts with a roommate, lose financial aid, become clinically depressed or have a substantial increase in tuition or living costs. While other events, such as becoming pregnant or developing a substance abuse problem, are very likely to cause a dropout, they occur in low numbers and are therefore limited as major causes.

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About the Study

The authors of the study conducted a series of data collection initiatives. In the first, 2,771 freshmen from a deliberately diverse set of ten colleges and universities volunteered. The schools included large and small institutions from around the United States, including five Big Ten universities, two historically black colleges in the Southeast and one selective private school in the Midwest. In the second initiative, 1,234 students from the original group were surveyed at the end of their first semester at college.

To ensure the most accurate results possible, the authors used a formal cognitive model. This means a mathematical language was used to offer more sophisticated results than are typically found in psychological studies. This enabled the authors to look at a wide array of causes for students dropping out and make predictive assumptions that might otherwise be too difficult to discern.

A Call for Change

As in most studies, the authors prescribe actions for change. Just as employers seek to retain their employees by making them feel appreciated and wanted, the authors posit that colleges should be doing the same. According to the study, there are two actions colleges might consider to potentially reduce drop-out rates: Make students feel like they are continuously being recruited, and investigate factors that can help keep students enrolled. Taking this conclusion a step further, students spend at least four years of their lives in college; if they're investing time and money in a school, likewise, the college should be investing in its students.

While graduation rates in post-secondary education may be at an alarming low, high school graduation rates have been steadily climbing.

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