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Report: Top 4 Barriers to College Completion

It's no surprise that college completion isn't in a healthy state. Of first-time, full-time students in four-year institutions, less than 60 percent finish a bachelor's degree within six years. In community colleges, it's worse: just a third of students earn an associate's degree within three years.

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research has examined this "completion crisis" to understand its causes and potential interventions. The result is a compact comparison that helps college leaders understand the differences between various college completion programs, including their costs.

The report identified four broad hurdles for students in completing their degrees:

  • Under-preparation. Often students don't take the courses in high school to set them up for college success, forcing them to take non-credit remedial or development coursework to make up for the loss — setting them back from the beginning. Students may also lack the study skills needed to tackle college-level coursework.
  • Institutional barriers. Many students have difficulty navigating systems such as enrollment, financial aid and other processes. For example, studies have found that students need help understanding course and degree requirements, or are sidetracked by failing to register for the right courses on time.
  • Personal non-academic barriers. These obstacles can include health issues, financial problems, mental health struggles, child care challenges, transportation difficulties and even disconnection from the college community.
  • College tuition costs. While the high cost of higher education is generally considered a barrier, research on the subject is mixed. According to one study cited in the report, "receipt of any grant aid increases the probability of student persistence and degree completion by two to three percentage points." Yet other studies have found that cost may have less impact on completion rates, at least at the community college level, than one might expect.

The report also analyzed the intervention strategies of eight different programs. Five serve community college students exclusively:

Two serve students in four-year schools:

And one serves both groups:

The expense of the programs ranged from a yearly cost per student of $700 (Project Star) to $16,000 (ASAP). As would be expected, they showed varying levels of success in terms of persistence and impact on degree completion. While MAAPS and Opening Doors had almost negligible results for persistence, Stay the Course and One Million Degrees showed considerable success. And whereas Opening Doors seemed to dampen completion minutely, Stay the Course and ASAP showed definite positive outcomes.

Given the relative high cost of some of the programs, it will be "important to target them towards the students who are likely to benefit the most," the report stated. For instance, two programs — Stay the Course and Project STAR — delivered major impacts on persistence and completion for female students, but not male students. The results for ASAP, on the other hand, showed no "noticeable differences by gender."

The researchers, from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Maryland, also emphasized the need to study participants "as they transition into the labor market" and to test variations of the programs to figure out which mechanisms in which programs are most effective.

The working report, "Comprehensive Approaches to Increasing Student Completion in Higher Education: A Survey of the Landscape," is openly available on the NBER website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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