This week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a confession: college drop-out rates among American students are high and not getting any better. He pledged that he and the Obama Administration would work to improve these rates through rewarding the schools who change the emphasis of their programs to completion, and that they would divert funds away from schools with high drop-out rates. This pledge comes on the heels of the summer season for education where many graduating high school seniors are beginning to look towards college and those entering their senior and junior years in high school are ready to assess their choices for the future. Looking at the Numbers In 2009, the U.S. government commissioned a report that looked at the rates of graduation among college students attending both 2- and 4-year institutions. Their findings were quite unsettling. Among those students attending 4-year institutions, only 57% were able to graduate within a six year period. The rate of graduation among 2-year schools is far worse though, with rates as low as 19% graduating within two years and 37% graduating within four. While those seeking only a certificate (not a degree) at 2-year institutions graduated at a rate of 47% and 71% within two and four year respectively, with the jobs outlook remaining dismal this seeming failure of the education system is alarming. What’s Happening in Our Colleges? Though the numbers in this report are not always the most accurate picture of college success – they only tracked first-time college students – they are still very troubling. One good element of this study and Secretary Duncan’s refocus on it is the reason for failure given by so many of the students surveyed: the pressures of full and part time employment. Many students expressed that the need to work either full or part time as a means to finance their education was the number one factor that lead to poor performance and dropping out. As college costs continue to rise at alarming rates, this should be of special concern to educators, parents, and students alike. Our economy is rough and many financial experts are urging parents to save for retirement over college costs. This leaves many students in the dust as far as financing is concerned. Secretary Duncan concluded his address with another note on one aspect of the college financing process he can help: financial aid transparency. The hope is that a new system, which will be designed to easily show students and their parents the return on investment expected from college education, will help them to decide on the best long-term course of action. The hope is to provide tools to students, their families and school counselors that will make the process of deciding upon and affording college (and the loans that come along with it) simpler over the long term. Looking to the Future Though this blog is dedicated to K-12 education, the concerns with college and the drop-out rate are paramount to us as well. As counselors and teachers who are steering students towards the “right” path, finding out more about the true returns of education can help us to offer options such as trade schools and certificate programs, which carry a much higher graduation rate. In addition, the focus on both the end result as well as the payment process for higher education again puts our future into the spotlight and, hopefully, will help pave the way for freer access to higher education for the students of the future.
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