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Students Chime In With Ideas to Improve College Completion

The national discussion over how to improve college-competition rates often takes place among policymakers and educators. But why not ask students themselves about what keeps them from getting a degree?

In Texas, students were asked about their high school and college experience in focus groups, and their responses were compiled in a report, In Their Own Voices: Young Texans Talk About Barriers to College Completion. The project was a partnership of Public Agenda, a public-opinion research organization, the Lumina Foundation's Productivity Initiative, and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Current students of two- and four-year institutions —and those who dropped out —were asked about what helped and hurt them in reaching their goals. For the full report and videos, click here.

Among the report's highlights:

While students say they value a college degree, concerns about debt and the economy cause some to wonder if a degree is really worth the effort. Students spoke about family and friends who completed college but were still unable to get jobs and were buried in student loans. Those students who didn't complete a degree and accumulated student-loan debt were particularly likely to question the economic value of a degree that comes with huge debt, the report states.

Many feel poor academic preparation and lack of adequate advising in high school set the stage for failure. When students were asked about their high school counselors' ability to advise them on their careers, decide on the right schools, and get them help with the application process or financial-aid forms, negative responses outweighed positive ones by far; almost half the students surveyed described their experience with high school advisers as "just being another face in the crowd," according to the report.

For students who enter college without clear goals or a strong support system, the transition to college can be overwhelming and lead them to give up. Financial pressure, family concerns, and lack of solid preparation derailed many students. The report says many students realized that they were not prepared for the challenge of college-level classes, did not have the requisite study skills or the discipline, and were not ready for the sink-or-swim approach of faculty compared with that of their high school teachers.

Students said faculty at two-year institutions, where classes are smaller, were more approachable than faculty at four-year institutions. Still, the overall college-advising system did not receive high marks. The inability to have a regularly assigned adviser and the quality of advisement were often considered to be subpar. Students said the advisers were often ill-informed about the requirements associated with various programs, particularly in fields that are rapidly changing.

Interestingly, when asked for recommendations to improve college success, the students were asking for higher standards and challenging curriculum. Among their ideas to help students persist:

  • Require four years of math in high school.
  • Put more focus on writing, with longer essays.
  • Encourage students to take AP and dual-credit courses.
  • Don't "dumb down" curriculum just so students can pass.
  • Have college students talk with high school students about the realities of college.
  • Improve advising so it's a plan that can be followed over the years.
  • Make it easier to get financial aid and keep tuition rates affordable.
  • Allow students to specialize their education sooner.
  • Provide online classes for working students.

While not as rigorous as some surveys, this qualitative research provides an interesting perspective on this issue. Of those in the focus groups, the majority (76 percent) had not earned a college degree of any kind; 18 percent had earned a bachelor's degree, and 6 percent had earned a two-year degree, certificate, or Associate in Arts degree. Thirteen focus groups were conducted between November and January in five Texas cities, with 125 participants.

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