Why do so many college students drop out, and what can be done about it?

That’s the subject of a new book, “The College Dropout Scandal,” written by David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Kirp writes:

"Higher education is billed as the ticket of admission to America’s middle class. That’s true for students who earn a bachelor’s degree — their lifetime earnings will be nearly $1 million more than those with only a high school diploma, and the gap keeps widening as more employers demand a university credential.
But the contention that college is the engine of social mobility is false advertising for the 34 million Americans over twenty-five — that’s more than 10 percent of the entire US population — who have some college credits but dropped out before receiving a diploma. Many of them are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college. While they earn a little more than those who never went beyond high school, they leave college with a pile of debt... Dropouts are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as college grads, and they are four times more likely to default on students loans, thus wrecking their credit and shrinking their career options.
... The fact that 40 percent of college freshmen never make it to commencement is higher education’s dirty little secret , a dereliction of duty that has gotten too little public attention."

Kirp says that some students drop out because of money problems, “and others realize that colleges isn’t for them.” But, he writes, many “depart because the institution hasn’t give them the we-have-your-back support they need.”

Here’s a brief Q&A with Kirp about his new book. He is a former journalist and member of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential transition team. He is also the author of other books, including “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” which was named outstanding book of 2013 by the American Educational Research Association.

Q: For starters, I’m interested in what propelled you to write this book now.

A: The simple answer is this — I became angry when I learned that 40 percent of undergraduates drop out of college, with all the life-changing consequences that follow, while most colleges were doing little, if anything, to address the problem. I became even angrier when I realized the raw deal that “new gen” undergraduates — minority, poor and first in their family to go to college — have been getting. The situation really is a scandal, and — j’accuse — I wanted to call attention to a problem that had gotten little airtime.

I also had it in mind to show that there’s nothing inevitable about a 40 percent dropout rate — that it is not, as apologists for the status quo would have it, the fault of the students. I was encouraged by the fact that some universities are moving the needle on student success and closing the opportunity gap, and I started writing columns about those schools.

The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I am a policy maven and a storyteller — the six most irresistible words in the English language are “let me tell you a story” — so I set off on a cross-country journey to learn about what worked.

Q: Tell me more about the 40 percent dropout rate. Who drops out and from where — and why?

A: The dropout rate is highest at community colleges. There, fewer than 40 percent graduate or transfer in six years (that’s three times the norm).

Q: Public universities have a 50 percent dropout rate? That is astounding. Has that changed over time or been consistent?

A: Half the students at public universities drop out. The graduation rate for black and Latino students, and students receiving Pell grants [federal grants for low-income students] is 10 to 20 percent lower. But universities vary widely in how well they do by their students.

Q: The grad rate for black and Latino students and those with Pell grants is 10 to 20 percent lower than whom? Whites? Asians?

A: The comparison is to the overall graduation rate. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Some of the schools that I profile, like the University of Central Florida, have essentially eliminated the gap. And at Georgia State, the “new gen” students — underrepresented minorities, first in their family to go to college and Pell grant recipients ― all graduate at rates higher than the overall graduation rate.

Q: To what do you attribute the variation in graduation rates among universities with similar freshman class profiles?

A: The graduation rate at universities with a similar freshman class profile varies as much as 20 percent. And at schools with the same overall graduation rate, the gap between the “new gen” undergrads ... and the rest of the campus varies even more. A new-gen student, choosing between two schools with similar admissions standards, may be half as likely to graduate if she makes the wrong choice. Unfortunately, when students apply to college, graduation is rarely on their minds — every freshman believes she’ll earn a degree.

The variation in graduation rates among schools with similar student profiles is an effective rebuttal to those who argue that the fault is with the students — that “if you give us better students we have higher graduation rates for it.” Successful universities have adopted some of the techniques that I write about in “The College Dropout Scandal,” including combining data analytics (number-crunching with big data sets involving student performance) with intense counseling and brief online experiences — developed by social psychologists — that are designed to give students a sense of belonging. In general, a university that makes student success a priority as opposed to an afterthought is going to have a higher graduation rate than a comparable institution where the leadership is focused on moving up the greasy pole of the U.S. News & World Report [rankings].

Q: Can you briefly describe one intervention that has worked?

A: One intervention that works:

Let’s talk about a group that gets very little airtime — foster kids are least likely to graduate — only 8 to 10 percent of them earn a bachelor of arts degree, a far worse track record than “new gen” students. That’s understandable. They’ve been bounced around from one family to another, and probably had a weak high school education. They have no money and no one to steer them through the process of applying for college.

Western Michigan University decided to change the equation of failure, and it is succeeding. WMU gives these students a free financial ride. At least as important is how the university intentionally builds a community, beginning the summer before college. They live on campus during the time they’re enrolled at WMU. Crucially, they have a “coach” who takes on the roles of academic adviser, social worker, mentor and parent.

This support pays off: 44 percent of the foster-care youth graduate, and while that’s below the 54 percent overall graduation rate at WMU, it’s a whole lot better than 10 percent!