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Survey Finds Work, Family Responsibilities Fueling Low College Completion Rates - Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Most students who fail to graduate don’t get financial help from family or the system itself

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Phone: +1.206.709.3400

NEW YORK -- Most young adults who started college but didn’t finish left because they needed to work more to make ends meet, according to a recent survey of more than 600 individuals aged 22 to 30 by Public Agenda. Managing work, school, and family was their biggest challenge.

That’s just one of many surprising new realities facing America’s college students, according to “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” a report based on a new Public Agenda survey of more than 600 young adults. The study compared the views of students who started, but did not finish, their college education with those who received a degree or certificate. The national survey, which also included focus groups in five cities, was underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

When it came time for these students to consider going back to college, it was again their work and family responsibilities that kept them from re-enrolling. For 56 percent of the survey participants, their need to work full time was a “major” factor preventing them from going back to school. Family commitments were also cited as “major” factors for more than half of those surveyed. More than one-third of former students who said they wanted to return also said they wouldn’t be able to even if their tuition and books were fully covered.

“The conventional wisdom is that students leave school because they aren’t willing to work hard and aren’t really interested in more education,” said Jean Johnson, director of Education Insights at Public Agenda. “What we found was almost precisely the opposite. Most work and go to school at the same time, and most are not getting financial help from their families or the system itself. It is the stress of this juggling act that forces many of them to abandon their pursuit of a college degree.”

For 40 years, the United States has worked to ensure all young people have access to college, and over that time enrollment has increased by 13 million students. But nationwide, less than half of all college students graduate within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At public community colleges, the numbers are even more grim: only 20 percent graduate within three years.

Last February, President Obama set a goal to again make America first in the world in the percentage of adults with a postsecondary credential. “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” provides insight into the lives of those students, and helps identify solutions that could help solve the nation’s college completion problem.

For example, those who failed to complete a degree said financial aid for part-time enrollees, more classes at night and on weekends, steep tuition reductions, and child care assistance, and would be most beneficial to helping them reenroll and graduate.

“Getting more and more students into college means nothing if we don’t also provide them with the support they need to graduate,” said Hilary Pennington, the director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This report is another piece of evidence that our college-going students today are nothing like those that the system was built to serve.” 

The survey results showed that while the college selection process is frenetic and unnerving for many college goers, those who failed to graduate faced more limited options and took a much more haphazard and uninformed route. Generally, they chose their college based on “convenience” factors, such as location, cost, and how well classes meshed with their work schedules.

Moreover, those who failed to graduate were not getting financial support from their family and the system. Of those who did not graduate, 58 percent did not receive support from parents or other relatives, and 69 percent did not receive support from a scholarship or financial aid.

Despite that, 89 percent of those who failed to complete a degree said they have thought about returning to college, and nearly all (97 percent) said it is important that their own children attend college.

About the report:
“With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them” is based on a survey including a nationally representative sample of 614 22- to 30-year-olds who have at least some postsecondary education, including 200 who did not finish their degree. Interviews were conducted via landline and cellular telephone from May 7 to June 24, 2009, and respondents had the choice of completing the interview in English or Spanish. The margin of error for the report is plus or minus 4.8 percentage points. The survey was preceded by five focus groups conducted in St. Louis, Seattle, Erie, Pa., New York, and Phoenix. 

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Public Agenda
For over 30 years, Public Agenda has been providing research that bridges the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues ranging from education to foreign policy to immigration to religion and civility in American life. Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

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