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College Enrollment is Up, but Graduation Rates are Falling

Today’s guest blogger is Bill Droel, an instructor and campus minister at Moraine Valley Community College.

College enrollment in the United States is rising. Over 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, including rapid increases in community colleges. But graduation rates are falling. Until about 1980 the completion rate was rather high and our young adults led the world in obtaining college degrees. A report by the College Board now ranks the United States as 12th, behind Canada, Belgium, South Korea and others.

Of those who enroll in a four-year college within two years of their high school graduation, about 43 percent dropout. Only about 25 percent of those who begin at community colleges ever obtain an associate’s degree and only a small percentage eventually obtain a bachelor’s degree. The completion rate for non-degree programs at community colleges is better, although nationally roughly 50 percent of those students drop out.

The U.S. “leads the world in getting students to start college,” writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times Magazine (5/9/10). But our society is falling behind “in what really matters: educational attainment.”

In our global economy success increasingly hinges on grades, test scores and degrees. So, who completes college and who doesn’t?

Here is a revealing observation: Working-class students have a high dropout rate from college; upper-middle class students complete their college studies. Despite aggressive college recruitment efforts among working-class families, despite college retention efforts, creative diversity programs, thorough orientation programs, needs-based scholarships, remedial attention and more, the gap is growing. College degrees are “largely being passed down from one generation to the next,” concludes Bill Keller et al. in Class Matters (Holt Co., 2006). “A nation that believes that everyone should have a fair shake finds itself with a kind of inherited meritocracy.”

At first, this might seem obvious. A working-class student juggles a job, family responsibilities and studies. It is likely under such circumstances that she or he cannot adequately focus on reading, assignments and tests.

A closer look reveals something more. The most important factor appears to be whether a student enters the college door with intellectual and social capital—no amount of school attention can adequately substitute for a deficiency in this regard.

A student with intellectual and social capital has since grammar school felt comfortable in libraries, has books in the bedroom, reads in the summer and on long car trips, sends notes or letters to relatives, perhaps keeps a journal, has solitary hobbies, follows sports in the newspaper, talks about homework with friends, participates in an academic club (debate team, theater production or physics club), meets friends at a museum or bookstore. The student’s parents attend the parent-teacher meetings, participate in a church-based discussion group, mention newspaper stories at family parties and subscribe to magazines like Baseball Digest, Popular Mechanics or The New Republic.

There are exceptions up and down, side-to-side. In general, however, the upper-middle class student with intellectual capital and social capital is confident enough to be in the roughly 53 percent of her or his class that completes college and consequently has an upwardly mobile life.

President Barack Obama, several governors, foundation executives, business leaders and educators have all in recent months spoken on the college dropout problem. Few if any, however, have explicitly pointed to the disparity of economic class as a factor in college success. Equipping working-class students for the rigors of college is a gradual process that involves families, churches, community organizations, clubs, neighborhood schools and other societal groups. This humble area of life is often overlooked by national policy makers, philanthropists and intellectual leaders.