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Quitting School Means Less Pay in One's Pocket, Research Shows

FILE - Students and passers-by walk past an entrance to Boston University College of Arts and Sciences, in Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 29, 2018.

College students who don't complete their degree programs might jeopardize their earning power, meaning there's less money to repay their student debt, say experts.

In the United States last year, 36 million Americans did not complete their studies, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The European Union found that in 2016, 3 million young people throughout its member nations had suspended their university education.

Across South America, nearly half of all 25- to 29-year-olds in 2017 had left school without earning a degree, the World Bank reported.

South African officials have reported similar statistics in their country.

Students report many reasons for leaving college or university without a degree, said Nichole Torpey-Sayboe, director of research for the Strada Education Network. The difficulty of college programs is not the top reason people give for leaving, she added.

Strada teamed up with Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company based in Washington, and released a report in December on why more than 42,000 Americans left school without a degree.

Researchers found the most common reason was the difficulty of balancing work with their college or university studies. Other reasons included the high cost of higher education and failure to see how their studies related to a career, Torpey-Sayboe said.

As for why so few consider returning to complete their education, she told VOA many Americans feel there is little chance of them succeeding if they do.

"They are afraid that they've been away from the classroom too long or they're just worried that the same situations that caused them to drop out before might still be there and make it difficult to be successful if they try again," she said.

Torpey-Sayboe suggested the problem in the United States is not just that students have less of a chance of finding good-paying jobs. They still have to repay student loans, and because they will likely have less access to better positions, they will struggle to repay that debt.

This makes an already difficult situation harder, noted Justin Ortagus, assistant professor of higher education policy at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"If you're a low-income, first generation student, you don't necessarily have a parent to say, ‘This is what you need to do to enroll' … or, 'These are the types of courses you need to take to ensure you're up to date in your individual major,'" he said.

"You kind of have to learn on the fly and really rely on under-resourced institutions to provide the support and services that you need."

Community college efforts

Yet Ortagus is hopeful. Last month, he and two other University of Florida researchers released a study on efforts to re-admit students at two-year community colleges across the state.

Community colleges largely serve poor and minority students, many of whom are working in full-time positions and supporting families. Federal studies show that only about 30 percent of individuals who start their education at such schools earn a degree.

The study, however, showed that community colleges were able to help students return in two ways. First, the schools started sending text messages to more than 27,000 former students on their mobile phones. The messages provided links so they could immediately enroll in classes or get advice about the next best steps in their education.

The community colleges also offered to pay for the first class once those students decided to return to school. The text messages alone had little effect; however, the two efforts together made the individuals in the study 21 percent more likely to re-enroll.

Ortagus said that this demonstrates how a little financial aid can do a lot for those in need. And, eventually, the cost to the school is covered when the students are in a better position to pay for the rest of their education.

Nichole Torpey-Sayboe said these efforts are a good start. But she argued greater changes still need to be made to the entire structure of U.S. higher education.

Torpey-Sayboe said one can see evidence of this in the growing popularity of internet-based degree programs. She said colleges and universities need to consider offering more classes outside of normal business hours, and lawmakers need to consider giving more money to schools that serve needy students so they can improve their guidance services.