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

So What Would Help?

Much of the broad national discussion about raising college completion rates has focused on making loans more available and keeping tuition costs in line. But the vast majority of young people who made the decision to leave college without a degree (or, in effect, had the decision made for them by circumstances) point first to options that would give them more flexibility in schedules and help them mitigate the challenge of working and going to school at the same time. Eight in 10 of those who did not complete college supported two proposals that they believe would make college graduation feasible: 1) making it possible for part-time students to be eligible for more financial aid (81 percent said this would help “a lot”); and 2) offering more courses in the evening and on weekends so that they could continue working while taking classes (78 percent said this would help “a lot”).

Of course, there’s little doubt that changes in costs and an expansion of the availability of financial aid would be enormously helpful to nearly all college students—those who complete their programs as well as those who struggle to do so. When young adults were asked to name which among our list of proposals would be most likely to help them and people like them, 25 percent of those who dropped out and 40 percent of those with degrees suggest as their top priority cutting the cost of college by a quarter.

Would a college ever do that?

Nearly two-thirds of young Americans who left college without finishing say that they have given a lot of thought to returning. In the focus groups, almost to a person, these young people talked about their aspirations and the hopes for their lives. A woman in Erie, Pennsylvania, described her dream: “I want the 8 to 5 [job], no weekends. I want the set schedule. I want the job that’s indoors, nicer, and the majority of the time, if you want to move up in a job like that, you got to have a degree.” A young woman in Seattle who aspired to become a teacher but had left school before getting her degree said, “I have to finish school. I’m already working with kids. I’ve worked in a day care for over six years. I have the experience. I just need to go back to school.” Nearly every young person we talked to shared his or her desire to do more in life. Yet despite their dreams, many were working in jobs that didn’t seem to offer any way to get where they want to go.

This study revealed some eminently practical steps that schools could take to benefit this group, beyond simply offering more and bigger loans to help pay tuition costs. Having enough money for tuition and books is step one, to be sure, but by itself that step may not provide the breathing space that many of these young people need to stay the course. Numerous responses suggest that one set of solutions might revolve around making part-time attendance more viable by giving those students better access to loans, tuition assistance and health care—benefits and services that are frequently available only to full-time students.

There may also be implications for employers. Are there ways that businesses can help part-time workers to pursue higher education, perhaps by providing access to health benefits or by offering more predictable working hours so that would-be students can more easily schedule their classes? Part-time work is often seasonal or otherwise vulnerable to the business cycle and other economic ups and downs. Would more secure part-time employment options be a game changer for some students?

In a focus group in Erie, Pennsylvania, several young women gasped in disbelief when the moderator listed child care as one of many possibilities for solutions to the college dropout problem. Of course that would help, several immediately agreed. “Would a college ever do that?” most of them asked. A woman in Seattle who had dropped out of college said, “The one [school] I was at, they have a huge waiting list for the day care. It was just really difficult to get in.… It was all really complicated to get it subsidized, at least where you weren’t paying $300 a week, plus whatever you’re paying for tuition.”

Maybe I won’t graduate, but my children will

What is clear from these results is that it would be a mistake of the highest order to write off these young people because they dropped out of college. Nearly all young adults understand the value of knowledge and know-how in today’s world. Even though many hedge their bets, given what’s happened in their own lives, most do grasp the economic facts of life: Attaining a college degree can change your life. Most strive to complete school; most would like to return to school, but the realities of their lives become insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps the most poignant evidence of how these young people really feel about college is this: Even though they themselves left before finishing—and chances are that many of those we spoke to will never return to higher education—fully 97 percent of young American parents who dropped out of college say that they will encourage their own children go to college. Given their aspirations and their clear message that some distinctly practical and attainable changes could genuinely enhance their prospects, the ball is now in our court. As a society, are we willing to act on what they have to say?