Oscar Olson says he went to college because, well, most of his friends were going.
He studied communications at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts in 2004. He said he made good friends and enjoyed his experience. But, he often felt unsure about why he was there, he said.
By the time he reached what would have been his final semester in spring 2008, he had lost interest. By the end of the school year, his friends were graduating.
But not Olson.
After struggling to complete his final class into a fifth year, he gave up. It was time to pay the student loans he took out to fund his education. He struggled financially. His college friends had moved on. And his academic advisors had changed several times.
Olson said he felt less connected to his educational experience. He left Bridgewater without earning his degree.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that between 2014 and 2016, millions of college and university students left school without a degree. Research suggests that many U.S. college students who drop out have completed most of their program requirements.
In May, Civitas Learning released a study of 30 two-year and 23 four-year colleges and universities. The organization studied more than 300,000 degree-seeking students.
The study found that nearly 1-in-5 students who left school without a degree had completed at least 75 percent of their program requirements. And nearly 1-in-10 had completed at least 90 percent.
Mark Milliron is the chief learning officer at Civitas. He says that in recent years, many U.S. colleges and universities have aimed to improve access to higher education. Schools have tried to find ways to include minorities, low-income students and students who would be the first in their families to go to college.
There also has been a push to help older students enter or return to higher education.
Milliron says schools need to do more to help those students succeed once they are at college. Students in these groups perform well in college, he says, but they may not get the tailored support that other students are accustomed to: Those who have family members who have attended college or have enough money to pay for school – usually have support systems in place. The people around them often understand the struggles of getting a college education. They can offer the students advice. And they also can offer financial help.
But for many other students, money is a large issue. Health problems, full-time work requirements, or childcare needs are other concerns.
However, poor or first-generation students are less likely to have people around them who can help deal with these barriers, Milliron says. So, it has become the responsibility of the schools to provide those supports.
“Students have to be college ready, but colleges have to be student ready, especially for the students of today, who…have a lot of different kinds of wants and needs,” Milliron says.
Recipe for success
Del Mar College, a community college in Corpus Christi, Texas, serves a mainly Hispanic population. So in 2016, the Department of Education awarded the school with money to help its minority population by employing special academic advisors. Del Mar also partnered with Civitas to determine what else it could do to increase its graduation rate.
Civitas shared special software with Del Mar. The software helped the school identify 3,000 of its students who were likely to drop out. Administrators then used this information to increase the amount of contact they had with these students. The more likely the students were to drop out, the more communications the students received from the school.
The communications included reminders of the requirements the students still needed to meet, as well as invitations to special advisory events.
Improving the lines of communication seemed to help, says Rito Silva, Del Mar’s vice president of student affairs.
Through its efforts, Del Mar was able to increase its number of students who successfully graduated by almost 74 percent in 2017.
Both Silva and Milliron agree that there is no single solution to the problem. Every college and university is different; it is their responsibility to research and experiment with what works best for their students, they say.
But Silva argues that schools must work just as hard on ensuring students succeed in college as they do on getting them to college in the first place.
“I really think those two go hand-in-hand,” he said. “It would be kind of a false hope that we’re giving them if we just give them access without the opportunity to succeed.”