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Training to Finish the Race

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October 14, 2010 04:45 pm

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AIR_Report_1010A new report from American Institutes for Research (AIR) examines the high costs that taxpayers and state and federal governments incur when students drop out of college. Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) the report finds that between 2003 and 2008, states appropriated almost $6.2 billion to colleges and universities to help pay for the education of students who did not return for a second year. Additionally, states gave over $1.4 billion to students who did not return for a second year and the federal government contributed another $1.5 billion ─ mostly in the form of Pell Grants which are targeted to low-income students to increase their access to postsecondary institutions.

Finishing the First Lap: The Costs of First Year Student Attrition in America’s Four Year Colleges and Universities cites research finding that approximately 30 percent of students who start college this fall will not return to that college next year. The author, AIR vice president Mark Schneider, explains how public colleges and universities are subsidized through state appropriations and through state grants to students and that nationwide, these subsidies are close to $10,000 per student per year. Private higher education institutes are not exempt and are subsidized sometimes through state programs that support students in private schools or occasionally through state appropriations and always through the tax-exempt status of private not-for-profit institutions.

Finishing the First Lap provides a state-by-state breakdown of how much states are using to support first-year-only college students. By listing the states in order of money spent, California tops the list and spent a little under a half of a billion dollars on students who didn’t start a second year at their school. Other big spenders on the list, which is clearly affected by size, include New York, Texas, Illinois, and North Carolina. More than half of the states spent over $100 million on students that dropped out after one year.

Schneider makes it clear that the purpose of the report is not to question why students fail to return for a second year. However, at least part of the blame must fall on the nation’s high schools because large percentages of students graduate from high school without the skills needed to succeed in college. According to ACT, only 24 percent of high school graduates in 2010 who took the ACT test were considered “college ready” by ACT’s benchmarks. In individuals subjects, 66 percent were college ready in English, 52 percent in reading, 43 percent in math, and only 29 percent in science.

Students who graduate unprepared will likely have to enroll in remedial classes at their higher education institute of choice. Nationwide, 42 percent of community college freshman and 20 percent of freshman in four-year institutions enroll in at least one remedial course.

Community colleges bear the greatest share of the remediation burden and the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that if all students in the United States graduated high school ready for college, the nation would save almost $1.4 billion a year in community college remediation costs and lost earnings. Keep in mind Finishing the First Lap only looks at the expenditures of four-year degree granting institutions, however any remediation costs that those schools do incur are in addition to the over $9 billion in aid that the report estimates states and federal governments provide to support first-year college dropouts.

Taking all of these costs together, we have one very expensive and serious problem. A problem that can certainly be at least partly attributed to America’s high schools not preparing many of their students for the demands of college. Without the proper training during these secondary years, how can students be expected to finish the first year in college let alone the whole four year experience?

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