What Makes At-Risk Students Drop Out of College?

Did you know that college student persistence in the US has yet to recover to its pre-2020 rate? This means students continue to leave colleges and universities due to personal hardship, financial constraints, loss of interest, etc.

As more higher education leaders learn to highlight persistence over retention, they’ll need to pay close attention to students who are most at risk of dropping out. Let’s take a look at two common reasons at-risk students withdraw – and what institutions can do about it.

1. College Students May Drop Out Because They Struggle to Find Childcare
For student parents, it can be incredibly difficult to figure out who will look after their children while they juggle school and work. Plus, only half of US colleges offer on-campus childcare – and space is usually limited. According to a report by the Aspen Institute and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, student parents achieve higher grade point averages (GPAs) than nonparent students. This tells us that student parents are capable and willing to persist, but are often forced out.

There are nearly four million student parents (most of whom are women and people of color). This number will likely rise, so institutions and policymakers must step up to the plate. The Lumina Foundation offers some valuable insight into the issue:

“For starters, governments and colleges can track the race, ethnicity, and parenting status of their students . . . Because there is still stigma attached to being a parent – particularly a young one. Many students, particularly those who are Black, Hispanic, or Latino, are reluctant to share this information. So, another key to the work is for colleges and universities to make sure student parents are aware of the resources available to them. Ideally, these resources should support the whole student. That doesn’t necessarily mean launching a separate program or opening a childcare center—as valuable as these efforts may be. It can be as simple as ensuring that financial aid offices make students fully aware of the aid they’re eligible for. A recent survey found that only one in four student parents knew that financial aid could be increased to account for childcare costs.

Another tip: enhance academic advisement services specifically for student parents. More tailored advising could help them navigate course credit transfers or new virtual options. Here are a few additional articles and resources that highlight what institutions are doing to help student parents:

→  The True Cost of Inadequate Childcare for Student Parents Pursuing Higher Education
→  At HBCUs, Student Parents Have Long Been Part of the Family
→  Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative
→  Generation Hope

2. College Students May Drop Out Because They Struggle Academically

The link between academic performance and persistence is well documented. One study, The Prediction of Freshmen Attrition, found that college students’ first semester GPAs strongly predict persistence between the first and second years.

Another study, Factors Influencing College Persistence for First-Time Students, concluded that mandatory remedial coursework negatively influenced persistence beyond the first year. On average, 60.5% of remedial students persisted for five or more semesters compared to 73.2% of nonremedial students. This means students and institutions have a short window of time to resolve academic insufficiencies through avenues like tutoring programs, advisement, career path tools, etc. Positive intervention at the high school level would be even more effective.

Encouragement from educators also plays a part in academic achievement, as does self-efficacy. At-risk students need educators who are willing to break down barriers. North Central Texas College’s Dr. Cherly Furdge is no stranger to this deep and meaningful work:

“A few years into my higher education career, a young Hispanic woman walked into my office in tears. Despite being a young faculty member, I did not hesitate to ask her what was wrong. She looked at me and said she felt like a failure because the scores on her TSI exam were so low that she would have to take all remedial courses . . . We continued the conversation by working to get her registered for classes and find tools to help with standardized test-taking strategies . . . today I’m proud to report that she’s an attorney. When the student left, I literally cried. Even after making her feel better, my heart ached because so many students run into this same roadblock of, ‘I can’t do this’—and some are even told they can’t . . . Throughout my years as an educator, I’ve heard many colleagues say that the students enrolling today aren’t ready for college. Could it be that we – the college faculty and staff – are the ones who aren’t ready for the students? Ask yourself, what have you done in your school/institution to ensure you’re ready for the student population you’re serving?”

College students need more support than ever. As higher education continues to evolve, keep at-risk students plugged in and persistent. Their future – and all of ours – will be better for it.

What Makes At-Risk Students Drop Out of College?

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