The National Center for Educational Statistics’ report, “Persistence and Attainment of 2003–04 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After 6 Years,” presents some key findings on the current state of student achievement in the higher ed system. The big takeaway: 50% of college students don’t complete their education within six years.
If we just look at the two-year colleges, a surprising 66% of students who enrolled in 2003 either dropped out or are still enrolled after six years and still have not received a degree.
While not stellar in either category, the data indicates that four-year schools tend to do better than their two-year counterparts when it comes to completion and retention. Here are a few notes and observations:
- Students at four-year colleges are younger and often “go away” to college. This naturally makes them more focused and perhaps easier to retain.
- Students at two-year colleges tend to be older, and on average tend to work (even supporting families) while in college. This makes them a bit more susceptible to economic factors or family priorities that make it hard to complete college.
- Many two-year colleges experience low success rates because they’re accepting students who are not actually ready for college. These students spend most of their time in remedial education. If you had two or three years of basic education before you could even enroll in a certificate program, what would your chances of completion be?
Success > Growth
The data found in the report echoes anecdotal reports that, while student enrollment is up, student retention and completion are lagging. Because of this, colleges need to be re-evaluated based on student success as opposed to enrollment. We’re already seeing colleges starting to emphasize student engagement, retention, completion, and career placement. (Here’s a recent article that explores this in a little more detail from Inside Higher Ed.)
This being the case, what are some practical things colleges can do to capitalize on this enrollment boom by keeping students engaged and retained? The first step seems to be properly identifying the common hurdles that prevent student success.
Data in the NCES report points out that students who have a fixed goal in mind tend to outperform those that don’t. Not a big surprise. This simple fact might be the most effective starting point for improving retention and completion.
The following table simply indicates that students who declare a degree intention have much higher success rates for degree achievement.
- More than half (52%) of students who declared they were attending college to receive a particular certification actually accomplished their goal.
- That number goes up to 63% for students who declare in areas associated with bachelor’s degrees.
- Oddly, students who say they want to get an associate’s rarely do (only 18%).
- Students who do not declare tend to have very low success rates (8% certificate, 7% associate’s, 16% bachelors).
We can also look at this from the angle of “degree expectation,” or what students thought they would get when they enrolled.
- Nearly two-thirds of students (65%) who have very little expectation when they enter college will drop out of the system with nothing to show for it within six years.
- Students who have a degree expectation clearly drop out at lower rates. Also, the higher the goal, the better the completion and retention rates.
What are the lessons here? One might be that our higher ed system can focus more energy on getting students interested and on track for “higher” (e.g., bachelor’s or greater) pursuits. More specifically, this means getting a student on a defined career track or excited about a specific field of study associated with higher wages and higher skill levels. Next, it’s important to enroll them in the programs that will help them get the job, or one similar to it. This should naturally help students be engaged from an economic point of view because it answers that age-old question, “What am I going to do with a degree in X?”
What’s needed here is a light at the end of the tunnel. Trials become much easier to face if we know we’re facing them for a reason. If that reason is not sufficiently vivid, it becomes easy to give up. Higher wages and concrete job opportunities should be accessible, vivid goals.
Colleges can provide these goals pretty easily by using good, up-to-date, local, or regional job data. Colleges and universities need to employ industry and occupational (or “labor market”) trends and become more mindful of how their specific programs relate to these jobs. When taking this information to students, it’s important that the career track have good wages, a healthy trend for hiring, and skills that interest the student. Furthermore, as much as possible, those career tracks should be higher-skilled. If students aim for higher achievement, presumably associated with higher-wage jobs, it naturally increases completion and retention rates. Also, have you ever heard of an employer complaining about a student who has over-developed their skills?
One other bit of data before we get into the nuts and bolts of using career information to help engage students: For students who thought they would get an associate’s, less than 18% actually did and 50% are not enrolled anywhere. This is an interesting statistic. Oddly, if a student intended to get an associate’s, he or she was actually more likely to get a certificate. If these numbers are true, the community college sector needs to take a closer look at what’s happening here.
How can colleges practically deliver data to engage students in programs?
At EMSI we have spent the last 10 years working with regional labor market data and making it easier to apply at the local level. We’ve found that this information is extremely helpful for understanding a broad range of career and economic decisions. The problem is that this data is often hard to collect, analyze, and use.
To make this manageable, EMSI pulls all the appropriate data together – particularly information on occupations (a.k.a., careers). We then build simple systems that mine the key information like employment trends, wages, education levels, and skill sets. This is all great info for students as they attempt to make career decisions. We can even link current job listings to our occupation information so that students understand who’s hiring locally. The point of this is to hook students into a career that interests them and has attractive wage figures. Remember, we want to provide vivid goals.
Then there’s one final step: We take this data and associate it with your college or university programs so that students can quickly see how careers relate to education. We also build a simple, customized system that your school can place on its external website so that students can quickly and easily access the information and find the right program.
So here is the general road map we’re proposing.
- Higher education institutions need to do more to improve student success (particularly retention and completion).
- Students who declare and show interest in specific program areas tend to do better than those that don’t.
- A good way to get a student to declare and to stay engaged is to help them understand what careers they can pursue with a degree.
- Data on occupations mapped to the college or university’s program is a simple, user-friendly way to help students understand this information.
- EMSI builds a simple, user-friendly system called Career Coach that will help your school achieve this goal.