Learning Curve

One and done: First-year students who bail on college

Dan Abendschein Jul 10, 2014

Are they leaving to take jobs, disillusioned with college life, or being crushed by sky-high tuition?

The report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center doesn’t offer an answer. But whatever the reason, the percentage of first-year students, who started in the fall of 2012 and returned to any U.S. institution the following year, has dropped 1.2 percentage points since 2009.

That may seem like a small increase in what’s known as the “persistence rate,” but it looks a lot bigger when you consider there are millions of college students.

The slide was biggest among students under age 20.

Since the study does not examine the causes for the change, several experts agreed it is difficult to know what’s behind the drop-out rate. It could be better job opportunities, or rising tuitions and loan burdens or new alternatives to traditional learning.

The difficulty of transferring from one institution to another could also be keeping the rate down, said William Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

Whatever the cause, it’s a study people should pay attention to, said Dewayne Matthews of the Lumina Foundation, which helped fund the study.

“Anytime you see those numbers going down that way it’s a cause of concern,” said Matthews.

Beth Akers, from the Brookings Institution, says maybe the numbers aren’t as bad as they appear. She said one-third of students don’t complete their degrees and it’s unclear whether there is any economic benefit to having more years of schooling, if you don’t finish.

“In that case, it’s probably better to opt out sooner rather than later,” Akers said.

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