REASONS TO PAY ATTENTION TO COLLEGE COMPLETION RATES
Having run scholarship programs for disadvantaged rural youth in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, we have spent some time learning about why students drop out of college. The simplest and most often mentioned reasons by students are money. It’s a really simple answer and requires no discussion. I dropped out because I did not get enough financial aid and my family could not afford it. No questions asked.
That may be part of the story, but it is not the complete story. Yes, students wind up with a great deal of debt. That’s the way things are in our country today. Not sure things are going to get better any time soon. Kids may spend a lifetime repaying those debts or go into professions and places that might help reduce debt. That will be fewer students to pay their debt down, as time goes on.
The actual question is why is it that kids drop out in their first year. Here is a specific example of why some students from small rural high schools drop out. Many years ago, our son, who graduated from a high school with 60 other kids, decided to go to Penn State. When he arrived at admissions, they asked him if he would like to be part of a study of students who came from schools with less than 100 in their graduating class.
He agreed to be included in the study. It seemed those student from small rural schools dropped out at an 85% rate during the first year. Guess what, my son was one of the students that dropped out at the beginning of the second year. Yes, he did go back to school after spending a year and one half at a branch campus.
If you get a chance to look at some stats, you will see that the research still remains the same. Students from small rural schools do not fare well in large colleges or universities.
Since we did have control over the schools that our scholarship students went to, we obviated that problem with the outcomes being very positive. Lots of students wanted to go to Marshall and WVU and Penn State and University of Buffalo, but we did not permit them to do so.
Since Carol and I were part of two scholarship programs that sent about 1,000 students to college, we also found another specific reason why kids drop out. In most cases, including our own son, those students who left in their freshman year, had not connected with an adult who was part of the college culture at the beginning of their tenure at school. Every student needs someone who can help them navigate these new surroundings.
Seems like such a simple thing. In some cases, we became the adults that the kids relied on for help. In overwhelming numbers, students found someone on their own to help them out. It could be anyone on campus, a professor, a counselor, an advisor, a nurse, a senior, a president (yup, had a few of those), a coach, someone the student was sure would be there when he/she needed them.
Without mentioning the name of a foundation, a very large and old foundation is funding student’s almost unlimited amounts of money for college. However, they find that their scholars are dropping out at an alarming rate. These students were formerly students in a prep school, at which everything was provided for them they did not learn to solve their own problems. To make matters worse, staff at the prep school was not available when the student in college needed them the most. In inquiring about how the school tracked their students, it was apparent that there was little in the way of interaction between students and most adults at the school. It was especially true about the guidance counselors who worked during the school day and had no hours in the evening. So, it was that students could not reach them when they had need of immediate help.
We always instructed the students not to do all of their studying in their rooms. We suggested that they go to the library and spend time in a quiet place. In some instances, the students attached themselves to a particular librarian or tech person. To be successful, students must become part of the college community. The must master the new culture.
PREPARING FOR COLLEGE
What role does the public school have in shaping the college experience for their graduating students/ Some districts do not believe that they have any obligation past graduation. One can understand that with a lack of resources, both human and materiel, it would be impossible to do any work beyond helping seniors get into college. Once past that, it is the college or university and the student that takes on the burden of being successful in college.
However, there are advantages in seeing to it that youngsters complete their college careers in the shortest possible time and that they have a great experience. Especially in rural areas, graduating from college with an education degree may mean a steady cache of potential teachers, especially those with the most needed majors in the sciences and mathematics. There can be no denying that helping students make good choices in college is both an advantage to the school district and to the students.
Even looking further ahead to how successful students that might help the school district in other ways- helping start foundations, volunteering to help with mentoring programs, tutoring, providing materials for children and food where needed. There are so many things that returning college graduates can do. This is certainly not to demean any other students that did not go to college. They may do the same kind of things. They may even become school board members.
So, how do you help to prepare students for what will face them when they go through those college doors?
SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR COLLEGE COMPLETION
Staff at your high schools is especially important in helping their students make it to college and complete their coursework in four or five years. Teachers and guidance counselors know their students. In rural schools, the relationships are even closer. Staff lives in the community, go to similar social events, belong to the same church, have family relationships, see students outside of school in towns, in shopping areas and so on. This makes for a great advantage in knowing the school culture and the families of students.
It is therefore somewhat easier to affect the success of the youngsters in their charge. These adults are there to help the students k-12 and sometimes beyond. School counselors and advisors have the advantage of seeing students and affecting their choices.
South Carolina has been at the forefront of freshman orientation programs for many years. It may even been one of the first in the nation to have a specific program of that kind. Today, that program is called University 101. It is a well-established program run by Dr. Dan Friedman at the Columbia campus. It is a model for many other such programs in the country.
It is voluntary. However, 82% of the students volunteer for the program. The results of the program are far reaching. Students are retained 88% going from freshman to sophomore year. That is a telltale sign of a successful program. Although it is a freshman program, it does tend to follow students to the end of their college careers. If staff at a high school is aware of the program, they can suggest it to students who are going to USC.
Most other universities and colleges have freshman orientation programs. They may last one day to one week. In one case a college asks their freshman what they might be interested in. The question has no bounds. It could be anything from Greek mythology to a soap opera on television. The college sets up a week long orientation where freshman actually go to these courses taught by a matched professor. This staff member then becomes the advisor to the group of freshmen for the entire four years of study. Students also have an academic advisor.
There are many other methods of introducing freshman to college life. Most of these programs are aimed at getting students acclimated to the way the college works, having a roommate, scheduling, student activities, geography of the campus, etc.
There are many books on the market that attend to the incoming freshmen. One of the best might be, “Making College Count,” by Patrick O’Brien. These sorts of books are best introduced by high school staff, mostly guidance counselors, in the senior year.
A more advanced publication, put out by University 101 is “Transitions.” It is a well-defined book written by staff members at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. It is well worth the read.
SCHOOL DISTRICTS HELP WITH COLLEGE RETENTION
In these days of rising college costs and post college debt, it is important that students understand that finishing school in four years is important. Some school districts have introduced dual enrollment courses, taught at the high school. These courses are valuable to students as they progress through high school. They may even be able to accumulate enough credits to skip a year of college.
In one case, with which this writer is familiar, two school districts have made it possible to graduate from high school with an associate degree from a local community college. With a memorandum of understanding with community colleges and agreements from a group of four year colleges, a student can enter college and complete their college education in two more years.
These are but a few of the things that are going on in rural school districts to help their students even after they graduate from their high schools. College retention is something to which local school districts should pay attention .