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It’s not about going to college

An opinion piece in today’s Washington Post boldly proclaimed that we need more people going to college. The author drags out the standard 10-year and 40-year returns for certificate programs, associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Graphically, they show that the longer a person spends in school, the more money s/he makes. After all, we can all agree that making $500,000 or $1,000,000 more in lifetime earnings is desirable, right?

Unfortunately, the author conflates going to college with completing a degree. The difference is huge. The national completion rate for non-degree certificate programs is somewhere between 50% and 60%. That means between 40% and 50% of certificate starters don’t reap the (limited) economic benefit of their efforts.

The completion rate for an associate degree after four years is 28%. According to the Brookings Institution, fewer than 40% of associate degree starters complete a degree program within six years of starting. After six years, the probability of completing a two-year degree program is virtually zero.

The six-year completion rate for a bachelor’s degree is 62%, and the eight-year completion rate is 69%. After eight years, the chances of a student completing a four-year degree program are statistically insignificant.

It’s not that we need more people to go to college; simply going to college is a near-sure pathway to financial ruin. We need more people to graduate from college. Today, earning a degree is the only way to recover the high cost of attendance. When six out of ten people do not complete an associate degree, and four out of ten people do not complete a bachelor’s degree, the risk of failure is not trivial.

Going to college must morph into completing college

The consequences of failing to finish a degree are also not trivial. Non-completers can have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and insufficient income to repay them. Additionally, non-completers will not receive the same consideration for raises and promotions at work. That translates to lower instantaneous earnings and lower lifetime earnings. It also probably means a lower rate of savings, less retirement savings, a limited ability to withstand economic downturns, a lower standard of living, lower lifetime Social Security wages, and exposure to a host of issues associated with lower earnings, like increased health problems and a shorter life expectancy.

Among all degree programs, associate degrees have the lowest completion rate. Increasing the number of students who graduate from a community college should be the highest priority. And community colleges must also recognize that their students have a small window in which to complete their degree program. Providing resources to keep students enrolled and on track to complete a degree is essential.

Community college administrators cannot tout the value of going to college if they don’t also equip their students to complete a degree.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education , via Flickr