Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

MYTH No. 4: Students who don’t graduate understand fully the value of a college degree and the consequences and trade-offs of leaving school without a diploma.

REALITY No. 4: Students who leave college realize that a diploma is an asset, but they may not fully recognize the impact dropping out of school will have on their future.

This survey leaves little doubt that young Americans who dropped out of college often faced the doubleedged challenge of working to make a living and going to school at the same time. What’s more, many seem to have drifted into college without a specific goal or purpose beyond hoping for a “better job” or a “better future.” But do those who fail to graduate have the same urgency about getting a degree as those who do graduate? Do they see the attainment of a degree as something essential to their future, something that requires whatever sacrifice and effort may be required?

This study and others have shown persuasively that most young people acknowledge that having a college degree will pay off in the end. Most also say they have received a fair amount of encouragement to go to college from family, school and other sources.1 Yet the findings here suggest that young people who leave college before finishing are somewhat less likely to hold these views passionately. That is, as a group they are less likely to strongly agree that their parents always instilled in them the importance of college, less likely to strongly agree that people who have a college degree make more money and less likely to say they would still go to college if they knew they could get a good job without a degree.

And, again, although most young people who drop out say that going to college was their plan even in high school, the numbers are slightly weaker than for those who successfully completed their degrees. Students who fail to graduate are 16 percentage points less likely to say that they always knew they would continue to college and 15 points less likely than those who completed college to say that their teachers and counselors probably thought they would go to college immediately after high school.

The differences here are subtle. Students who drop out of college are only slightly less likely to endorse the benefits of higher education or to say that attaining a degree has always been their plan. In some respects, this may be a natural outcome of having left college—after all, one needs to believe that he or she still has a good future ahead. Nevertheless, though these response variations are relatively small, they may play a role in a student’s ultimate decision to leave school. For someone who is scrambling to work and attend classes at the same time and has taken on the burden of paying part or all of his or her own way, even a small amount of uncertainty could be the tipping point. Or, as an old Spanish expression has it, it could be the drop of water that finally makes the glass overflow.

[1] ”Life After High School,” Public Agenda, 2004.