NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Do So Many Americans Drop Out of College?

April 3, 2012

The phrase "dropout factory" is ordinarily applied to America's failing high schools -- the ones where students are expected to fall through the cracks, where those who make it past graduation and on to college are considered the exceptions, the lucky survivors.  But by that definition, another level of U.S. education counts as a "dropout factory" -- our entire higher education system, say The Atlantic.

  • Just 56 percent of students who embark on a bachelor's degree program finish within six years, according to a 2011 Harvard study titled Pathways to Prosperity.
  • Just 29 percent of those who seek an associate's degree obtain it within three years.
  • According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just 46 percent of Americans complete college once they start, worst among the 18 countries it tracks.

Looking for an explanation, many focus largely on the cost of school, but there's another factor at play that has less to do with the cost of a degree and more to do with the changing nature of our job market, as well as the way our education system has failed to keep up with it.

Today, it's harder to earn a middle-class wage without a college degree.  That demand for skills is causing more students to sign up for school than ever before.  But once they get to class, not every student is prepared.  Nor do they necessarily want to be at college, or have a clear notion of what they're doing there, making the system incredibly wasteful.

This isn't how it works in the rest of the developed world.

  • When all is said and done, about 40 percent of Americans earn a college degree, roughly the same as European countries such as France, Finland and Sweden.
  • The difference? Young Europeans who opt out of college can take extensive vocational training during their equivalent of high school.
  • Rather than spending money on community college courses or a bachelor's degree they aren't sure what to do with, they can learn hard skills that will prepare them for employment.

Europe's own youth unemployment problems are evidence that more vocational training won't be a panacea the problems facing young Americans.  But they would be a first step towards a less expensive, less wasteful educational system geared more towards the realities of the economy.

Source: Jordan Weissmann, "Why Do So Many Americans Drop Out of College?" The Atlantic, March 29 2012.

For text:


Browse more articles on Education Issues