America’s College Drop-Out Epidemic: Understanding the College Drop-Out Population

Erin Dunlop Velez

Over 40% of full time four-year college students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, and many never complete their education. This CALDER Center paper describes this sizeable fraction of the U.S. higher education market and estimates counterfactual predicted probabilities of degree completion, had students made different initial postsecondary enrollment choices.

Using data from the NLSY97, a rich nationally representative data set,  several observations were made. First, policies aimed at increasing postsecondary degree attainment by encouraging college enrollment are likely to be unproductive, given that students who are currently not enrolling in postsecondary education have very low predicted probabilities of completion, due to their low academic preparedness. This holds true for enrollment in both two-year and four-year colleges. Second, the paper finds that students who drop-out of four-year colleges generally also have very low predicted probabilities of completion, although this varies across student groups. Finally, it concludes that had four-year college drop-outs begun their postsecondary careers at a two-year college, their predicted probabilities of postsecondary degree completion would be significantly higher. While most of this increase in degree completion comes through increased associate’s degree attainment, about a third of four-year college drop-outs would have a higher chance of bachelor’s degree completion, had they begun college at a two-year institution.

While the results are only a descriptive analysis, and should not be interpreted as causal findings, until more is understood about the types of students who drop-out of college and potential reasons why, there will likely be little progress in reducing the college failure rate in the U.S.