Crossing the Finish Line: College Dropouts (EdSector Archive)
Crossing the Finish Line, an impressive new book by former Princeton president William Bowen, former Macalaster College president Michael McPherson, and Matthew Chingos, relied on two massive databases on the entering class of 1999–one on 96,000 first-time freshmen and 30,000 entering transfer students at 21 flagship universities and the other on 108,000 freshmen and 42,000 transfers at less selective state colleges and universities in four states (Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia)–to compile a wide-ranging book of empirical research on topics impacting American higher education. This is the fifth in a series of posts on their findings (see previous installments on affirmative action, financial aid, transfer students, and college admissions).
In a book full of interesting graphs, the one below is probably my favorite (reproduced from Bowen, Chingos, and McPherson, Page 35). It shows the cumulative transfer and withdrawal rate for the 1999 cohort. The red line indicates the number of students transferring out of their original institution to another four-year school. It's about what we'd expect: there are spikes at the end of years one and two (semesters two and four), but they more or less level off after that.
The blue line is a lot more interesting. It shows the cumulative withdrawal rate of the same entering group of students. Unlike the transfer rate, and contrary to popular knowledge, the dropout rate increases rather steadily over time. While most retention efforts are targeted at the first few years, and, really, mostly just the first year of a student's college career, about half of all dropouts occur after year two.
This is an incredibly important finding. The federal government tracks one-year retention rates, because we know it is a strong predictor of ultimate graduating. Colleges and universities have front-loaded their retention efforts, launching things like first-year seminars and housing communities with the sole intention of getting students to return for their second year. But this chart suggests these efforts aren't enough, that retention must be a concentrated effort beginning in year one and continuing until a student completes their degree. That requires a very different set of policy actions than we're currently pursuing.