Study outlines ways to help more students finish college

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More money, more child care and more flexibility. Think of how much easier it would be for everyone to do their jobs with those things in place.

Only a fool would turn down a raise or an affordable babysitter. And who wouldn’t want the option to work at home online, or at least outside the typical 9-to-5 framework?

So it should come as little surprise that more financial aid, more child care and flexibility all emerged in a new survey as among the top things that youths say would make it more likely for them to complete college.

The survey, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College, is meant to drive the national discussion about how to help more youths earn college degrees in a reasonable amount of time.

That goal continues to take on greater relevance in light of research by labor economists on the growing importance of a post-secondary credential or degree – a notion that has become a mantra of the Obama Administration, which has set a goal of getting the United States to become a world leader in the percentage of citizens who hold a college degree by the year 2020.

The survey – produced by Public Agenda and underwritten by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – urges higher education officials, policymakers and others to do more to remove the barriers that some students face as they pursue post-secondary training and education.

The “most potent area to look at is for higher education institutions themselves to start thinking about the fact that they have students in difference circumstances,” Jean Johnson, director of programs at Public Agenda, said in a conference call today to release the report.

The report states that the “number one reason students give for leaving school” is having to balance school and work and, despite their best efforts, “the stress of trying to do both eventually took its toll.”

“Those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent),” the survey states.

Public Agenda presented Frankie Barria, a 24-year-old former college student, as an example of how hard it can be to juggle work and school.

“It was just unbelievably hard to maintain my job and a good GPA and get my degree,” said Barria, who related how he worked extra hours as a part-time lifeguard and eventually chose work over school “because having a roof over my head and something to eat was more important.”

“It’s just too much to go to school and pay bills at the same time,” Barria said.

Since many youths must balance work and school, Johnson said, colleges need to think about “how to change to accommodate the reality of students.”

Youth adaptation and resources

There is, of course, a flip side worth exploring: the degree to which students must change to adapt to the reality of going to college.

While the survey indicated that many youths quit school in order to go to work, the perceived need to work instead of study could result from an unwillingness to make certain sacrifices or changes in lifestyle.

While paying the rent is crucial, many students split the cost by putting several heads under one roof.

Child care may be vitally important for young adults who are already parents. But for students who aren’t yet saddled with the responsibility of raising children, there are a variety of ways, from abstinence to prophylactics, to keep it that way.

And when it comes to finding the right college, scholarships and grants, the local library is probably one of the most undervalued and underutilized resources in this regard.

Personal choices aside, the survey noted some severe differences between the kinds of support available to students who completed college versus those who dropped out.

* Only 42 percent of the dropouts got help paying for school from their parents, versus 63 percent of those who graduated.

* Those who completed college were more likely to have received loans than those who did not complete college (49 percent versus 31 percent).

* The graduates were more likely to have received scholarships or other financial aid than were those who dropped out (56 percent versus 31 percent).

* Students of lesser means tend to choose colleges based on more practical reasons than their more well-to-do counterparts. Sixty-two percent of students whose parents did not help them pay for college chose their schools based on how close they were to work, versus 45 percent of students whose parents helped them pay for school.

Asked for solutions, Johnson, of Public Agenda, cited survey results that showed youths called for part-time students to be able to qualify for financial aid, which she said is evidently not the case in many institutions. In addition to more day care (there are often waiting lists at many college day care centers) and more evening courses, Johnson said there is a need for colleges to do more to offer apprenticeships instead of strictly classroom work.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers with a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at jamaal@youthtoday.org