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Nearly every child in America hopes to become a college graduate. Her ambitions are at least partly realistic—rates of high school graduation and college-going are very high. But the chances she will succeed in college are more modest: Less than 60 percent of students entering four-year institutions earn bachelor’s degrees, and barely one-fourth of community college students complete either associate’s or bachelor’s degrees within six years of college entry.
Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are even less likely to realize their college ambitions. Only 40 percent of beginning college students from low-income families complete a two- or four-year degree within six years. Rates of degree completion are much higher among high-income students (62 percent). Focusing on the most lucrative undergraduate degree, the baccalaureate, there is a 40 percentage point gap in completion rates between individuals from the bottom and top income quartiles. Since future economic and social success is largely predicated on holding a college degree, this low chance of college success among the poorest students perpetuates growth in income inequality.
Since the mid-20th century the federal government has played an active role in promoting access to higher education, primarily through financial aid policies designed to reduce credit barriers to college attendance. But Washington pays far less attention to whether students finish college, operating under the false assumption that after conquering college admission a degree is guaranteed. In this paper we describe the results of that inattention: stagnating completion rates, increasing time to degree completion, and persistent and likely increasing income disparities in attainment. We follow with a discussion of the factors contributing to student success and then elaborate on the areas in which policymakers might most effectively intervene to reverse these trends.
We conclude that the federal government needs to broaden its role in higher education by taking actions to support states and public colleges and universities in their efforts to help more college students complete their education. We argue that increased investments in the most accessible but under-resourced schools are needed to ensure that all college students receive an adequate education. Efforts should be aimed at not only effectively alleviating the financial barriers to college completion, but also at improving students’ chances of experiencing academic success in college, broadening access and increasing efficiency by facilitating the transfer of students and credits across schools, and ensuring the value of degrees by emphasizing and measuring individual learning and achievement. Federal involvement is required to guarantee that the necessary funding is provided, clear messages are communicated, and data is collected so that progress toward goals can be measured. By acting as a guiding partner in the American higher education system, national leaders—together with educators, state legislators, and families—can turn more dreams into college diplomas.
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