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Improving the graduation rate requires an early start

Yesterday, I wrote about results of a new survey conducted earlier this year by Sallie Mae. The survey examined the differences between students who completed college and those who did not. Survey data revealed several remarkable differences that influence the graduation rate of people who attend college.

In yesterday’s post, I looked at factors that improved the graduation rate among respondents, but the institution has no ability to change those factors: having a parent who graduated from college, childhood household income, etc. Fortunately, there are additional factors that institutions can impact.

According to the study data, three out of four respondents who completed college decided before entering high school that they would go to college. Among non-completers, more than half said they did not make college decisions until they were in high school. One-third of non-completers said they did not decide to attend college until their junior year or later.

The lateness of the decision to attend college makes a major difference in the graduation rate. Conversely, an early commitment to attend college had a profound effect on the respondent’s completion status.

Among those who completed college, 9 out of 10 felt very confident about their chances of getting into college. Nearly the same percentage of respondents (89%) believed they could complete college. Fifty-seven percent of those who graduated believed their family had the financial ability to pay for college. In comparison, only 75% of non-completers believed they could get into college. Sixty percent thought they could graduate, and just one-third felt confident in their family’s ability to pay for college.

Improving graduation rates means recruiting middle school students

If the key is an early start, community colleges should focus their student recruiting efforts on middle school students. To be fair, community colleges aren’t big on recruiting students. (But they should be.) Community colleges likely talk to high school students as they approach graduation. The students most likely to complete college already have their plans in place.

Engaging middle school students before they’ve made a commitment to go to college may increase the number of students who are committed to seeing a post-secondary education. Instead of “poaching” students who would otherwise attend a university, this approach creates more students who make the commitment to continue their educations. Additionally, it creates an opportunity to discuss education financing with parents and make a plan to pay for college.

These are all critical steps that – when applied consistently – can improve college graduation rate for students at community colleges. If community colleges intend to stay in the game, it is clear they will need to change the way they recruit students.

Photo Credit: Jay Kleeman, via Flickr