Majority of college dropouts cite financial struggles as main cause

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009; 2:46 PM

The No. 1 reason many young adults drop out of college is an inability to juggle school and work, according to a report released Wednesday morning.

When choosing between a degree and going to work, paying rent, buying groceries or supporting family members, many students are forced to drop out, said Jean Johnson of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public policy research firm that conducted a telephone survey of more than 600 people ages 22 to 30 for the report.

The research reflects a "very, very different reality" than the common image most people have of college as "a place where a young person goes and they become an adult," Johnson said. "So many of them are already assuming adult responsibilities."

Although strides have been made in increasing access to higher education for low-income and minority students, many of them are leaving school without a degree or certificate, Johnson said. Each fall, 2.8 million students enroll in some form of higher education, but fewer than half of students who start school graduate within six years, according to the U.S. Education Department. At public community colleges, only 20 percent of students graduate within three years.

The report is the first of three funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to examine access to college and college success.

Researchers found that students who drop out do not usually fit the stereotype of "Joe College": a student who debated which school to attend, lives on campus, attends class full time and has help paying bills. For students who leave school, "the balancing act is not between going to class and attending football games and frat parties; it's more likely between going to class and punching a clock in order to pay rent," they wrote.

For these students, picking a school to attend is often a haphazard and uninformed process, the researchers wrote, and the top reasons the former students cited in choosing a college were location, class times and tuition rates. Fewer than a third based their decision on the academic reputation of the school.

Of students surveyed, 58 percent said they did not receive any financial help from their parents or relatives to pay tuition or fees, and 69 percent had no scholarships or financial aid.

When these students decided to drop out, 70 percent said they did so because they needed to work to support themselves; other reasons included not being able to afford tuition and fees, needing a break, classes that were not useful and needing more time to spend with family.

Many of these young adults told researchers they would consider going back to school, but full-time work and family responsibilities again keep many of them away. A third of students surveyed said even if their tuition and books were fully covered, they could not go back to school because they could not afford to support themselves.

The report suggests ways to make it easier for working students to complete school, including allowing part-time students to receive financial aid, scheduling more classes at night and on weekends, reducing tuition and providing child care.

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