About two-thirds of high school graduates nationwide have enrolled in college the fall after they complete high school. Of those students, about two-thirds will likely be back at the same college the following year. And the attrition continues as students’ college careers progress.
Fewer than 40 percent of students who enroll in college full time will have earned a bachelor’s degree four years later. Within five years, the percentage crept up to 54.3 percent for students who enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs full time in 2005.
The United States has generally seen substantial growth in college enrollment in recent decades. In 1975, just 51 percent of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college. By 2011, that percentage had grown to 68 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
While college enrollment has swelled, the U.S. has seen stubbornly little improvement in the rate of students who remain in college and earn a degree. Among students who enrolled full time in four-year degree programs in 1996, 55.4 percent earned a degree within six years. For students who started college nearly a decade later, in 2005, the six-year completion rate inched up to 58.8 percent, federal education statistics show.
College degree completion is now a major public policy focus, receiving attention from President Barack Obama, the National Governors Association and research and philanthropy organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In Maine, that focus on degree completion prompted Democratic gubernatorial candidate and U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to propose a free sophomore year of college at the University of Maine System’s seven campuses in his recently released economic development and business investment plan.
“We tried to look at a simple way to make a major difference with the success rate, time and overall cost and debt,” said David Farmer, a senior adviser to Michaud’s campaign. “We felt like the sophomore year was one of the straightest-forward, based-on-research approaches.”
The retention challenge
You’re more likely to earn a college degree within four years of starting if you’re female; white, Asian or multiracial; and attend a private, nonprofit college.
Some 34.1 percent of male students who started a four-year degree program in 2005 had earned a degree four years later, compared with 42.3 percent of their female counterparts. College completion for that same group of men and women was lower at the nation’s public colleges and universities: Just 27.1 percent of men had earned a degree within four years and 36.2 percent of women.
Students are more likely to drop out of college during the first year than at any other time in their college career.
“That doesn’t mean you complete your first year and you’re home free,” said Rosa Redonnett, executive director of student affairs for the University of Maine System. “If you can get into your sophomore year successfully, the outlook is much better for you.”
Whether students stick with it commonly comes down to whether they are prepared for college-level work and whether they can afford to pay for it.
“People come unprepared,” said Karen Keim, associate director of the Maine Educational Opportunity Centers at the University of Maine, which coaches adults who enroll in college. “Students don’t challenge themselves enough in high school. They don’t take rigorous classes because they’re not forced to. They’ve graduated from high school because they’ve met the minimum requirement.”
In a 2010 survey, chief academic officers at 600 four-year public colleges and universities identified students’ preparedness and “adequacy of personal financial resources” as the most common factors affecting student decisions to withdraw. Student study skills, the amount of financial aid available and “the level of motivation to succeed” were close behind in the survey, completed by ACT, the organization that develops the college entrance exam.
What’s been tried, what works
Colleges and universities have introduced an array of support services over the past two decades in an effort to prevent first-year attrition.
The University of Maine offers an optional semester-long orientation for first-time students that introduces them to the academic support services available on campus and helps them hone their study skills for college-level work.
The University of Southern Maine in 2012 opened the Learning Commons at its campus libraries in Portland and Gorham, where students can seek tutoring help, assistance with developing writing and study skills, and tips on conducting research. The Learning Commons also offers group study rooms, work spaces where students can complete multimedia projects and comfortable furniture not commonly found in traditional libraries.
The University of Maine System administers the federally funded TRIO programs designed to help low-income, first-generation college students and adult students enrolling in college.
Many colleges and universities offer first-year seminars for new students.
“There’s no paucity of programs,” said Drew Koch, executive vice president of the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education in Brevard, N.C.
“Rarely when they add a program do they do away with one,” he said. “They may be excellent programs, but they’re never really brought to scale.”
Students need to have a support network and know how to access it, and they need to be involved on campus, said Keim, of the Maine Educational Opportunity Centers. “A student who gets involved in their campus community is more likely to complete,” she said. “Students make a mistake by thinking all they should do here is study.”
Free sophomore year
Michaud’s campaign estimates a free sophomore year at the University of Maine System’s seven campuses would cost the state an additional $15 million annually. The program would cover the cost of tuition and fees. The additional aid would complement any existing grant aid Maine students receive while replacing loans and the out-of-pocket family contribution.
“We want to have a significant impact on student debt,” Farmer said.
Michaud might implement the program first as a small pilot project, Farmer said, and he is open to any ideas that might be more effective. Michaud’s plan also discusses a need for a range of student support services — counseling, mentoring and internships.
An overwhelming majority of students in the University of Maine System qualify for some form of financial aid — in the form of grants, loans and work-study packages. At the University of Maine at Machias, 99 percent of students receive aid; 86 percent qualify at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the lowest percentage systemwide.
In terms of covering tuition and fees, the objective of Michaud’s free sophomore year, the average grant awards already cover a significant portion — ranging from 62 percent of tuition and fees at the University of Southern Maine to 121 percent at the University of Maine at Machias.
But while a large portion of University of Maine System students receive grant aid, large majorities also take out loans as they try to come up with the full cost of attendance — tuition, fees, living expenses and more.
The prospect of a free sophomore year could act as an incentive for certain students, according to some. “The idea of using pricing as a conscious strategy to reward desired student behavior strikes me as worth exploring,” Matt Reed, a community college dean in Massachusetts, wrote of Michaud’s plan on InsideHigherEd.com.
But offering the free year of college doesn’t necessarily direct the aid to those who need it most, said Matthew Chingos, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy.
“If you focus on people who need it the most, you’re more likely to be able to make a difference for them than if you give it to everyone,” he said. “Targeting sophomore year, it sounds a little politically gimmicky to me.”
Plus, offering enough aid only to cover the cost of tuition and fees falls short of covering all costs students need to cover. “I tend to look at these policies and say, do they actually cover the full cost of attendance, or do they only cover tuition and fees?” said Koch. “Tuition and fees are nice, but they’re only a start.”
According to the University of Maine System, room and board expenses account for about the same portion of average costs as tuition and fees.
Research on student retention points to the importance of coupling financial assistance with academic support in which students are required to participate, said Koch, who formerly led student retention initiatives at Purdue University in Indiana.
“My experience with both income-based and merit programs is consistent,” he said. “Simple forms of funding, ‘X’ amount a year for four years, and you have to be involved in these support initiatives — that will yield successful outcomes.”
Matthew Stone is BDN opinion page editor.