The hum of air conditioners and lawn mowers may still be in the air, but we’re seeing the unmistakable rituals of fall. Think school, with all that the new academic year brings in a promise of something fresh and different—and perhaps stirring a few tears from student and parent. You may be imagining the tender little kindergartner as you read this, but the college sendoff is equally fraught with that nervous excitement.
Unlike kindergarten, which flows into the later grades with comfortable predictability, what lies beyond the college freshman year is not so predictable. Those first semesters—indeed, those first weeks—set the path. For too many students, it’s a path that leads away from graduation. Nationally, just 81 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates return after their first year; at the large public institutions where most students enroll, that figure drops to 62 percent. (NCES, The Condition of Education, April 2017) Colleges are digging into the causes and how they might do better.
Let’s take a look at some of these causes for college leaving. College costs are certainly weighing heavily on these students, both the financial reality and the worries generated by media reports that fixate on the extreme examples of indebtedness. Of perhaps equal significance, however, is the college experience. This is no fluffy priority. In 2014, the Gallup organization paired with researchers at Purdue University and the Lumina Foundation to develop a new, comprehensive analysis of what factors mattered most during college for a sense of well-being after graduation. The Gallup-Purdue index (Gallup-Purdue Index Report, 2014) measured the experiences of nearly 30,000 adults with at least a college degree. Those with a high sense of well-being in their lives and work traced their satisfaction to high involvement in campus activities, mentoring, and connections with their professors. And as college graduates, it’s worth noting what they valued during their college years because it may very well be what kept them going.
College brings knowledge, discrete skills, and—with the degree—the best career options in today’s workplace. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but rather in a complicated mix of experiences and interactions. These experiences are where the networks and the soft skills come from that employers continually seek. When students fail to plug into these experiences, or struggle to know how to do so, the entire educational effort suffers.
Without the social connectors, college success is far less likely. Nearly 61 percent of students reported feeling lonely in the past year, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA) Fall 2016 annual survey. Lonely, despite being surrounded by more peers than ever in their lives. What’s going on? The first year packs a lot of “firsts” onto the freshman plate: first time living away from home, first time (for many) with a roommate, first time to handle the demands of college course rigor. Understandably, students will make the adjustment with varying levels of comfort and success. In the midst of so much that is new and simply so much to do, students feel the clock ticking on how to get connected. For too many college students, they give up after the first year.
Students and their parents should be forgiven for thinking that they’ve reached the finish line once all of the college applications are finished, the acceptance notices are sent, and the college deposit is submitted. Part of that college selection process, however, needs to look beyond the acceptance rates and glossy brochures. When just 59 percent of students who start a 4-year degree have completed it—6 years later—we all need to look harder at this leaky pipeline. Beyond acceptance rates, how do your favorite colleges perform in retaining students and graduating them?
Conversations with student affairs professionals and current students themselves can provide powerful insights to the daily life that you might expect as a student on that campus. Recruitment brochures will proudly list the array of clubs, internships, and events, but how are students finding out about and taking advantage of these opportunities? Savvy schools are paying attention to this question. So should you.
Copyright 2017 Carole J. Trone, PhD