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(The RAND Blog)

May 9, 2019

Addressing the College Completion Problem

Photo by Rawpixel Ltd/Getty Images

by Lindsay Daugherty

As taxpayers, Americans invest billions of dollars annually on higher education. The federal government spent approximately $91 billion (PDF) on higher education in 2016, and state and local funding accounted for more than $80 billion. Return on this investment comes when students complete a degree or certificate: Students who earn a bachelor's degree earn an estimated $2.8 million (PDF) more over their lifetimes than someone with a high school diploma. Society at large benefits when college graduates pay more in taxes, require fewer public benefits, and engage in lower rates of crime.

However, more than half of students who enter college end up dropping out without ever completing a degree or certificate. Time and money are wasted without the benefits of a degree. While colleges are experimenting with novel techniques to boost completion rates, strategic support from the federal government could further these efforts and help ensure that higher education investments are paying off.

Academic and Life Challenges Can Hit College Students Hard

There are lots of reasons why students drop out of college. Some of the issues are academic. Many college students are deemed “not college-ready” when they first enroll and are required to complete a series of remedial courses in math, reading, and writing before they are able to enroll in credit-bearing college courses. Studies indicate (PDF) that many of these students can spend years paying for courses without earning college credit and have little chance of ever graduating.

Students also drop out for many reasons that have little to do with academics, including financial difficulties and other life challenges that interfere with their ability to devote time to their studies. For example, a 2015 survey (PDF) found that more than one in three community college students went hungry within the last month because they didn't have money for food, and 14 percent of students were homeless. Many of today's college students are trying to balance their studies with jobs and family responsibilities, and an unexpected event like car trouble or a child care issue could be enough to derail their progress toward a degree.

Colleges are experimenting with innovative approaches to address both the academic and life challenges students face. For example, colleges are developing new ways to help underprepared students, such as corequisite remediation. This approach places students directly into college-level coursework and provides extra academic support during that same semester to address remediation needs, which studies suggest can improve student success.

Students drop out for many reasons that have little to do with academics, including financial difficulties and other life challenges.

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Colleges are also enhancing the financial and wraparound supports they offer students. For example, many colleges are experimenting with small “completion grants” and emergency loans to help bridge financial gaps when traditional aid runs out, and the results look very promising. RAND's evaluation of a program that used on-campus offices to connect college students to public benefits and community resources, such as legal services and tax preparation, found improved outcomes for students who used the services.

Combining academic and non-academic supports has helped address the dropout problem. The City University of New York's ASAP program includes academic components like corequisite remediation with tuition waivers to bridge financial aid gaps and provide free textbooks and Metro cards to cover student transportation costs. The program doubled graduation rates within three years.

While colleges have taken the lead in addressing completion issues, guidance and financial support from policymakers could fast-track changes and encourage more colleges to use these promising approaches. The upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) could provide an opportunity for Congress to tackle the college completion problem at the federal level. For example, Congress could consider:

  • Providing financial resources to help colleges support students. Current HEA reauthorization proposals include funding for the adoption of promising student success strategies. For example, the Aim Higher Act proposes dedicated funding for remedial education reform and boosting funding for campus-based child care. This type of support could be key in addressing the completion problem, as many of the colleges struggling with high rates of dropout are those with the fewest resources, like community colleges. Without dedicated funding, colleges may be hesitant to roll out new—and often costly—strategies for supporting students.
  • Ensuring high-quality research on what works. To ensure that colleges are investing in successful strategies for addressing college dropout, colleges need to know about programs' effectiveness and how to implement them well. The IMPACT Grants proposed under the PROSPER Act offer one avenue to do this, with a structure for gradually testing and scaling innovative strategies while collecting evidence critical to understanding effectiveness and helping colleges to replicate promising approaches.
  • Requiring that completion data be tracked and used to ensure accountability. A common business philosophy is that “what gets measured gets managed.” If college completion and success in the workforce are the returns sought for our higher education investments, then tracking data on these outcomes is critical. There are different ways of using completion data to hold colleges accountable, and several of the approaches proposed in HEA reauthorization bills could be a valuable step forward. The Aim Higher Act proposes a stronger role for completion and employment data in the accreditation process, while the PROSPER Act calls for a completion threshold that colleges must meet to receive federal funding. Making completion data easily accessible to students and their families could also help hold colleges accountable by ensuring informed decisionmaking.

By considering policies that hit on these three areas, Congress might help to address the college dropout problem and ensure maximum return on our higher education investment.


Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.