The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why do so many students drop out of college? And what can be done about it?

The University of Texas campus in Austin. (Jon Herskovitz/Reuters)

More than 3 million students will graduate from U.S. high schools this month, and two-thirds of them will head off to college next fall. If history is any guide, for many of them, their high school graduation might be their last commencement ceremony.

Fewer than 40 percent of students enrolling for the first time at a four-year college graduate in four years. Add in community college students, and more than half of students who start college drop out within six years.

For generations, few colleges paid much attention to students who left short of a degree. Indeed, the federal government did not even collect data on a school’s graduation rate until the mid-1990s. College was seen as a stage in life for young adults to discover themselves — a place where they would sink or swim.

That attitude started to shift in the past two decades as federal statistics revealed a little more than half of students graduated, even as tuition and student debt continued to skyrocket. Most problematic was who finished and who did not: Basically, wealthy students graduated,  and low-income students did not. Children from families earning more than $90,000 have a 1-in-2 chance of getting a bachelor’s degree by 24. That falls to a 1 in 17 chance for families earning under $35,000.

With the pressure on colleges to retain more students and get them to graduation, campuses are spending an increasing share of their budgets on student-success efforts. They are installing technology that constantly tracks performance, hiring professional advising staffs to assist in course selection and designing opportunities on and off campus to better engage students in their undergraduate careers. Now, there is a greater sense of urgency to these activities. A surge in enrollment of first-generation, low-income and minority students is expected in the coming years — all groups historically not well-served by higher education.

“Where else can we take someone’s money and not guarantee them something in return?” David Laude asked me recently. “Las Vegas — and I don’t think higher education wants to be compared to gambling.”

Laude is a chemistry professor and senior vice provost at the University of Texas at Austin. While many campuses have only recently started to do something to improve student learning and outcomes, Laude was an early convert. In the late 1990s, Laude was teaching an introductory chemistry course at UT-Austin, like he had been since 1987. Over the course of a few years, however, he noticed the distribution of grades in his classes was shifting.

“Rather than the typical bell curve, it was inverted,” he recalled. Of the 500 students in his class, about 400 were on one side with A’s and B’s. The rest were at the bottom, with D’s and F’s. Few were in the middle.

To learn why, Laude asked the university for the records of the students at the bottom. He quickly noticed a pattern: Many were from first-generation or low-income families and had some of the lowest SAT scores on the Austin campus, usually about 1,000 on the 1,600-point scale. Like many other universities, UT-Austin sent struggling students to remedial courses — essentially noncredit high school “do-over” classes — that for many were a precursor to dropping out.

Laude wanted to try something different. In fall 1999, he pulled 50 students from his 500-seat chemistry class who came from low-income families, from families whose parents did not go to college, or who had low SAT scores. He enrolled them in a smaller 50-seat class he taught right after the larger class. “It was the same material, it was just as hard, but I changed my attitude about these students,” he said. “We beat into their heads that they were scholars, that they were great.”

In addition, he assigned these students advisers and peer mentors. When the semester was over, the students in the smaller class had achieved the same grades as those in the larger section. “These were students I would have failed a year earlier,” Laude recalled.

In the following years, Laude’s approach was replicated in biology and calculus courses, and earlier this decade, Laude was promoted to work with a team at UT-Austin to improve the graduation rate for the entire campus. So far, their efforts seem to be working. Data released last year show the university’s four-year graduation rate rose from 52 percent in 2013 to 66 percent in 2017, and the growth spanned racial groups and family income levels.

Laude still teaches chemistry, and his work on student success has changed his approach in the classroom. He puts most of his lecture material online for students to watch in advance and spends class time in discussions, often walking into the middle of the classroom rather than standing at the front. “It’s about creating a culture that I’m on your side,” Laude said.

To some, that might sound like he simply made his course easier so more students could pass. “The class is just as hard,” Laude told me, “but instead of having this adversarial relationship with students, now we’re nice to them.”

It is a message more professors and more colleges are getting — finally. For too long, the attitude from colleges has been that we should just trust them on the quality of their product. Faith in that assurance is flagging, judging from recent surveys of the public and college graduates. It is not that colleges should simply pass students through to graduation. But when only a little more than half of undergraduates make it to commencement, it cannot simply be the fault of students. At some point, colleges have to look inward at their own cultures and practices.