Completion challenge: Can colleges help students prone to stopping out?

A new study shows that those who fail to earn credentials often have early disadvantages but could benefit from added support from higher ed institutions.
By: | June 30, 2022
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Not every student is cut out for the rigors of a traditional college path. But institutions of higher education still can play a significant part in the outcomes of those who attend by providing better support systems.

In a new study conducted by researchers at Ipsos and Sallie Mae, students who started college and stopped out acknowledged the reasons they exited and barriers they faced in trying to reach completion. While 40% of non-completers said they had a change in motivation, a combined 35% said they faced financial or mental health challenges that prevented them from continuing at their institutions. Once they leave, their colleges are not likely to get 80% of them back, even in the next five years, according to data from the “How America Completes College” study.

“We know college completion, not just college access, is key to success,” said Nicolas Jafarieh, executive vice president of Sallie Mae. “Understanding why some students leave college before completing their education can help educators, communities and policymakers better support those students and increase graduation rates. It’s clear we need to ensure planning resources and financial aid are reaching those families who need support the most—including first-generation college students and those from underserved communities.”

Sallie Mae researchers noted the decline in FAFSA completions as one of the many indicators of lower retention and completion rates for those groups. Their stop-outs don’t just occur during or after the first year but are spread equally among the next two college years, pointing to financial setbacks and mental health strains as potential contributors.

Inside the numbers

The bulk of the Ipsos-Sallie Mae study focused on the haves and have-nots—or the stark differences between “completers” and “non-completers”—which often manifest before the college experience and can severely affect outcomes in terms of college completion, jobs and future earnings. Over 500 former students from each group ranging in age from 18 to 30 were surveyed in February to see what motivated them during middle and high school and what ultimately impacted their outcomes.

Although more than 90% in each group said they were encouraged to go to college, only 55% of non-completers knew they wanted to attend college before they reached high school—compared with 74% of completers—and around a third of those not until their junior year or later. That uncertainty, combined with a lack of a plan for how they would pay for college (26% to 42%) and other factors, led Jafarieh to note that “families should also be exposed early to options other than the traditional college experience.”


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Far more completers made robust preparations for college with family and friends—from standardized tests to college tours—and used academic resources prior to attending. Completers also noted their confidence in both being able to get into college and succeeding once they arrived. Non-completers showed far more uncertainty in both categories, as well as how they would find the money to pay for college.

Despite the fact that some students just might not be a good fit for college, the factors causing some students to stop out might be the lack of support once they arrive. One student within the survey noted, “Poor experiences with my first major, plus not knowing what I wanted to do, essentially killed my motivation to continue.” That can lead students to question the value of their education, even though many studies, including one from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce, have shown that bachelor’s degree holders can earn as much as $1 million more in a lifetime than those without them. That is a powerful statement that colleges and universities can stand behind, but only if they can boost completion numbers.

So how do they do that?

In addition to targeting care resources, researchers said colleges should strongly promote financial aid and scholarships they offer to both current students and those who might want to get back in. The vast majority of non-completers who hinted at a return said more financial assistance, better flexibility in attending and being offered courses that fit their work would be essential. Around half said free transportation and meals would be helpful.

Disenchanted by their first experience because of a lack of financial and academic support, 85% of non-completers said they would change at least one aspect if they did return, including their degree paths (39%) and even the college they would attend (38%).

“We often talk about the advantages of having a college degree, but it’s important to look at the things that will help students make it to that finish line,” said Jennifer Berg, research director at Ipsos. “The belief that the college degree is going to help them be more successful seems to be an important driver, and when they lose sight of that goal they tend to fall off course.”