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Study Offers Insight Into What Helps Students Finish College

Lots of reasons have been floated as to why students fail to finish college. Now a scientific study measures the factors and offers new insights into this vexing problem.

Interestingly, the answer varies for students at a two-year or a four-year college, according to Competing Explanations of Undergraduate Noncompletion by Paul Attewell, Scott Heil, and Liza Reisel, published in the American Education Research Journal last week.

In their study, the researchers considered the relative importance of financial aid, integration into campus life, high school preparation, gender, race, socioeconomic status, work hours, enrollment in remedial classes, and nontraditional student status. The analysis revealed no single dominant factor was associated with better chances for graduation, although some were more important than others at certain kinds of institutions.

For students at two-year colleges, receiving financial aid is the strongest predictor of finishing a degree. By contrast, at four-year institutions, the amount of aid had a smaller impact, the research shows. This was a surprising finding, since costs are lower at community colleges and students receive relatively little aid. Work-study aid is especially important to helping students finish their degrees at two-year colleges, the study found.

Many observers have not considered financial hardship an important factor in noncompletion at this level, but this research shows that affordability and aid are indeed worthy of attention among community colleges working to improve graduation rates.

At four-year colleges and universities, it's all about preparation. How ready the student was academically was the No. 1 explanation for student success. The researchers speculate that this was not as strong a factor at community colleges because they have adjusted their classes for students with weaker academic preparation. The researchers suggest that efforts to ramp up high school curricula to better prepare students for college are primarily applicable to those who are headed to four-year colleges.

Students who had nontraditional profiles (part-timers, married, with kids, or those who delayed college) have persistently lower graduation rates across institution types. Their noncompletion disadvantage is clear even when controlling for other factors, such as longer work hours, less aid, or lower socioeconomic status.

As for family income and race, these are factors in completion, according to the study, but are somewhat smaller influences when other variables are considered, such as academic preparation, aid, work hours, and nontraditional status.

So what does all this mean for the many programs, governmental and nonprofit, aimed at boosting graduation rates? Interventions with the greatest potential for improving completion rates should be aimed at preventing delayed entry to college, increasing part-timers' level of enrollment, increasing financial aid to community colleges, and reducing students' work hours.

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