Oscar Olson did not seek higher education after completing high school because he had a strong wish to earn a college degree. The Massachusetts native says the main reason he decided to go to college was because most of the people he knew were doing so.
Olson began studying communications at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts in 2004. He made good friends and enjoyed many of his experiences there.
But, Olson says he often felt unsure about why he was there or what he was doing.
He successfully completed the first three years of his study program. But by the time Olson reached what would have been his final semester in spring of 2008, he lost interest in the work his program required of him.
By the end of that school year, the friends he began the four-year college process with were graduating.
Olson, however, failed to complete his final class.
His parents were not pleased. Olson says they expected him to try harder. So he returned to Bridgewater to try to complete the few requirements he had left.
But, he told VOA, “I already kind of knew that it wasn’t going to happen.”
By the start of his fifth year, Olson had to begin repaying the loans he had used to pay for the costs of his education. He struggled financially.
Also by that time, the friends he had made were gone. And his academic advisors had changed several time. Olson began feeling less connected to his educational experience. So he decided to leave Bridgewater without earning his degree.
Olson’s story is not unusual.
The United States Department of Education reports that, between 2014 and 2016, millions of college and university students left school without a degree.
Recent research now suggests that many U.S. college students who drop out have actually already completed most of their program requirements.
The organization Civitas Learning studies and supports the growth of higher education in the United States. In May, it released a study of 30 two-year and 23 four-year colleges and universities. The study included more than 300,000 degree-seeking students.
The study found that on average, nearly one in five students who left school without a degree had completed at least 75 percent of their program requirements. And nearly one in 10 had completed at least 90 percent.
Mark Milliron is the chief learning officer at Civitas. He says there are many reasons why students choose to leave school before graduating. As with Oscar Olson, cost can be one reason. However, it is far from the only reason, Milliron says.
He notes that in recent years, many U.S. colleges and universities have aimed to improve access to higher education. This means schools have tried to find ways to include minorities, low-income students and students who would be the first in their families to go to college.
There also has been a push to help older students enter or return to higher education.
These efforts are good for the students, the schools and the country, Milliron says. But he says schools need to do more to help those students succeed once they are at college.
It is not that these newly represented groups are not able to perform well in a college environment, Milliron says. In fact, earlier Civitas studies suggest that many students who drop out are actually performing well in school.
Milliron suggests the real issue is that traditional and non-traditional students have different levels of support in place.
Life can create barriers to any student’s completion. Students may deal with health problems, full-time work requirements, or childcare needs.
But traditional students – those who have family members that have attended college or have enough money to pay for school – usually have support systems in place. The people around them often understand the struggles of getting a college education. They can offer the students advice. And they also can offer financial help.
However, poor or first-generation students are less likely to have people around them who can help deal with these barriers, Milliron says. So, it has become the responsibility of the schools to provide those supports.
“Students have to be college ready, but colleges have to be student ready, especially for the students of today, who…have a lot of different kinds of wants and needs,” Milliron says.
What does that mean, exactly? Take the efforts of Del Mar College, a community college in Corpus Christi, Texas, as an example. Del Mar serves a mainly Hispanic population. So in 2016, the Department of Education awarded the school with money to help its minority population by employing special academic advisors. Del Mar also partnered with Civitas to determine what else it could do to increase its graduation rate.
Civitas shared special software with Del Mar. The software helped the school identify 3,000 of its students who were likely to drop out. Administrators then used this information to increase the amount of contact they had with these students. The more likely the students were to drop out, the more communications the students received from the school.
The communications included reminders of the requirements the students still needed to meet, as well as invitations to special advisory events.
Improving the lines of communication seemed to help, says Rito Silva, Del Mar’s vice president of student affairs.
Through its efforts, Del Mar was able to increase its number of students who successfully graduated by almost 74 percent in 2017.
Both Silva and Milliron agree that there is no single solution to the problem. Every college and university is different; it is their responsibility to research and experiment with what works best for their students, they say.
But Silva argues that schools must work just as hard on ensuring students succeed in college as they do on getting them to college in the first place.
“I really think those two go hand-in-hand,” he said. “It would be kind of a false hope that we’re giving them if we just give them access without the opportunity to succeed.”
I’m Pete Musto. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How common is it for people to leave higher education without earning a degree? What do colleges and universities in your country do to solve this problem? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
degree – n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university
semester – n. one of two usually 18-week periods that make up an academic year at a school or college
graduating – v. earning a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university
academic – adj. of or relating to schools and education
drop out – p.v. to leave school without completing the educational program
access – n. a way of being able to use or get something
income – n. money that is earned from work, investments, or business
determine – v. to learn or find out something by getting information
invitation(s) – n. a written or spoken request for someone to go somewhere or to do something
hand-in-hand – adv. closely connected
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done