As parents of millions of high school seniors well know, we’re smack in the middle of college application season. Here’s some sobering news to think about from the National Student Clearinghouse: despite a huge national push to get more people through college, the percentage of students actually earning degrees continues to decline. Of the nearly 3 million people who started college in 2009, just 52.9 percent finished six years later. That’s down from 55 percent for the cohort that began college the previous year.
In many ways, this is a story about the recession and its aftermath, said Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In 2009, a lot more people went to college — many to take shelter from the bad economy or to learn new skills. Far more of those students were adults and part-timers, who tend to have lower graduation rates.
Then, as the job market slowly improved, many students dropped out.
“Many of these students may have chosen to leave college — whether they had a degree or not — if there was a better job waiting for them in the improving economy,” Shapiro said.
Others left because rising tuition made college unaffordable, he said. Meanwhile, cuts to state funding made it tougher for schools to provide the classes and support services students needed to graduate.
“At the same time that the enrollments were going up, the funding was going down, so there was a real squeeze on the institutions that made it harder for them to meet the needs of this big influx of students,” Shapiro said.
Still, many see the latest report as another sign that colleges — and high schools, for that matter — are not doing enough to help students make it to graduation.
Some schools have made significant gains in graduating more students, said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the New America Foundation, but the report paints colleges with a broad brush.
“It’s important to raise the flag and make sure that we’re paying attention to it, but we have to get much more detailed to figure out which schools are serving students better,” she said.
A lot of the efforts to improve completion rates really got underway just a few years ago, said Vincent Tinto, professor emeritus at Syracuse University.
“Wait to see the further cohorts, and I think you’ll see this is a blip, which is not surprising given the effects of a recession,” he said.
Even though completion rates fell, 71,000 more people earned degrees than among those who started college in 2008, Tinto said, and those degrees should pay off.