College-Bound Students, Don’t Get on the Six-Year Plan

Few students start out in college thinking that they will drop out or flunk out. Despite that massive optimism, some schools feature alarmingly low graduation rates and scarily high attrition rates.

College-Bound Students

Before you make a final decision on a college or university, it’s essential to know what the school’s graduation rate is and you need to understand this figure in relationship to the size of the most recent freshman class.

For example, if a university recently graduated 2000 students in one Spring ceremony, and if the incoming freshman class is 2500, that means that, on average, about 20 percent of the people who start out at that school will not make it to graduation. That is not a particularly alarming figure, however. A twenty percent attrition between initial enrollment and receipt of a diploma is about average for decent schools.

Many things can come between a young person and his education. He might get sick or he might have a sick parent on whose behalf he needs to quit school. Some students succumb to too many of the temptations of college life. They spend more time drinking beer than studying, and their plummeting grades cause them to be suspended or lose their financial aid. Other students get into their freshman year and decide they have other priorities. School doesn’t interest them as much as they thought it would. They would rather get out into the working world or start a family.

Some of the above students will find their way back to college in the years ahead, so a 20 percent attrition rate is not as gloomy a statistic as it might initially appear.

However, if the college you are considering graduated only 500 students and the incoming freshman class is 2500, you need to ask a lot of questions before committing yourself to that institution.

There are a number of reasons for high attrition and one school’s high attrition problem might be very different from another’s. Some schools are too academically rigorous for the students they are admitting. If a student’s high school education did not prepare him for really difficult college classes, he is likely to fail some or all of those classes. If this happens to a number of students, the school will have a high attrition rate and a low graduation rate.

The problem could also be rooted in the school’s culture. Is there a history of violence on campus, fights breaking out, students complaining about harassment? Some schools work very hard to cover up problems like this, and they may not surface during your initial research, but a negative campus culture makes students flee. They drop out or transfer to other, safer, friendlier schools.

One way to uncover information about a possible negative culture is to research the local newspaper online archives for stories that couldn’t be suppressed about campus crimes and crimes involving college students.

The only foolproof way to learn about campus culture, though, is to visit the school–preferably for more than one day–and make sure that you talk to students who are not employed by the admissions department. Go to the dining hall or student union by yourself and observe what students are doing and talking about. Do they seem comfortable and secure? Strike up conversations with them and just ask, in so many words, about campus safety and whether college policies protect students from harassment and bullying.

Another common problem for schools with high attrition is a failure to organize the curriculum so that students can graduate within four years. For instance, if a university does not offer enough seats in its freshman writing courses, some freshman will not be able to take that core class. They fall behind because composition is a prerequisite for other classes. Students who don’t complete their core requirements in a timely manner often have to put in an additional one or two semesters, beyond the expected four years, to complete their degrees.

Exploring Career Options

    Discover which jobs match your skills, interests, and experience.

    Using the latest labor market data explore which careers are growing in popularity.

    Find out what's required to get your dream job.

    Get the most job satisfaction at the best rates of pay.

    Understand what you have to do to be successful in your chosen career.