Financial, social and academic factors are making it tough for college students graduate within six years
Until this spring, Dan Sterling was a student at Massasoit Community College. As of next week, he will be heading to Florida - to work at clubs and basketball camps, with the prospect of continuing his higher education on the distant horizon.
The Holbrook resident’s progress through higher education is typical nowadays. While more high schoolers than ever are enrolling in college, a disproportionate number are not staying in school, much less graduating.
As with many such young adults, money played a part in Sterling’s decision. The 2003 high school graduate plans to save his money and become a Florida resident before, ideally, enrolling in a state school to study business administration and sports management.
“The school that I want to go to is down there,” he said, “and the price is a lot less expensive if I live down there.”
As the nation’s more than 17 million undergraduates are getting ready for the start of fall classes, educators and researchers say it is now clear that most will not follow the traditional four-year path to a degree.
In fact, only about half will graduate in six years. The reasons most often cited: the rising cost of higher education, sufficient financial aid remains inaccessible to many students and high schools fail to properly prepare their graduates.
Among first-time college students who started toward a bachelor’s degree in 1998, 35 percent graduated within four years, and slightly more than half earned their degree within six, according to a 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report. Just 33 percent of students who enrolled in a two-year college in 2001 have graduated, the report said.
The situation in Massachusetts is similar to that elsewhere. At Curry College in Milton, for instance, 30 percent of undergraduates do not reach their second year, and fewer than half will graduate, figures that are “pretty consistent with the national averages,” said the school’s communications director, Fran Gately.
Statewide, 79 percent of high school graduates went on to a two- or four-year college. Towns often boast about their college enrollment statistics but are not required to track the success of their students after high school.
Yet getting into college is entirely different from staying in, and the quality of one’s high school education plays a part. A commission created by U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings last year found that many high schools do not adequately prepare students for college.
The report also faulted the rising cost of tuition and an inefficient financial aid system, which make college increasingly more unaffordable.
“Although the proportion of high school graduates who go on to college has risen substantially in recent decades, the college completion rate has failed to improve at anywhere near the same pace,” the commission found.
Curry has tried to help on the financial end, as roughly 70 percent of the school’s 3,600 students receive some form of financial aid.
But the school recognizes that it takes more than money to keep a student on the path to graduate.
Because not all first year students are prepared for the rigors of a college education, the school also requires them to take a course on the right way to research, write and study, said Susan Pennini, the school’s interim vice president of academic affairs.
Class sizes are kept at or below 20 students, and faculty and staff members are asked to call a campus hotline to report students who seem to be struggling, so they can get additional help, Pennini said.
To keep students beyond that first year, Pennini said it is also important that the school’s curriculum and community blend with the lives and career goals of the students. Students are also more successful if they form “at least one significant relationship” with an adult on campus, she said.
In Rockland, a blue-collar town where 82 percent of 2006 high school graduates went on to college, many discover that they are unprepared for the financial challenges that await them on campus, said Doric Scarpelli, Rockland’s interim assistant school superintendent and a longtime guidance counselor.
Getting high school seniors to focus and prepare for college as their graduation day approaches is also a constant tension, he said.
Students with insufficient coursework heading into college may need to take remedial courses - paying more, in terms of tuition costs, spread out over the extra semesters they may need to graduate, Scarpelli said.
“Those that take an easy way out usually end up paying for it,” he said. “What appears to be doable at graduation time, by Christmas of that first year seems too daunting.”
Andrew Lightman of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.