The New York times recently ran an article titled “The Reality of Student Debt Is Different From the Clichés“; the summary of the article is that share of income related to loan repayment has remained steady, and most college students who complete school will “do just fine. The vastly bigger problem is the hundreds of thousands of people who emerge from college with a modest amount of debt yet no degree. For them, college is akin to a house that they had to make the down payment on but can’t live in. In a cost-benefit calculation, they get only the cost. And they are far, far more numerous than bachelor’s degree holders with huge debt burdens.”

It’s interesting to note that we’ve been stuck at a 50-55% completion rate for years; ACT reports the following completion graph for “Percentage of Four-Year College Students Who Earn a Degree Within Five Years of Entry”, and it’s basically stagnated since the early 1990s:

Graph

Our research indicates that the attrition – and the debt implications – are related to five core findings. I initially highlighted these findings in an article called “Stop Chasing Scale in Higher Education“:

  1. Students don’t have time for school, because they are working… to pay for school. A report by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation identified that 60% of students in community college work 20+ hours per week in addition to pursuing their studies. 35% of students feel that balancing work and school is too stressful, and 62% of all college students who drop out are responsible for paying for their own education. (With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, A Public Agenda Report for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).
  2. Students change their school or major, requiring them to extend the length of their studies. When a freshman enters college at 18, there’s little reason to expect them to know exactly what they want to study. But many academic programs require a student to declare a major prior to matriculating. Our own qualitative research at Blackboard indicates students often make their initial major decisions for poor, irrational reasons.
  3. Students can’t get into required courses, essentially blocking forward progress. Academic programs have gating classes that are often difficult to get into, due to limited capacity and increased demand. These classes “unlock” additional required courses, and without completing the gating course, a student must add themselves to the wait list and take other courses or defer their forward academic progress. At the California Community College System, 472,300 of the 2.4 million students were on waiting lists for classes Fall 2012 — an average of about 7,150 per campus. (LA Times, Community colleges’ crisis slows students’ progress to a crawl)
  4. Students become emotionally overwhelmed, and feel alone. We’ve known for close to twenty years that issues of emotional and social adjustment predict attrition “as well or better than academic adjustment items”, indicating that for many students, feelings of loneliness or anxiety cause them to drop out. (Gerdes, 1994) Yet we continue to understaff and underfund advisors, counselors, and other non-academic support structures at major universities. A study in Massachusetts identified that 17 percent of the full-time students who entered one of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts in 2003 earned a degree or certificate by 2010; the study aimed fault directly at the lack of emotional advising and support. “‘We believe that too many students are falling through the cracks, in part because they don’t have the guidance they need,’ said MTA’s Elizabeth Shevlin, the report’s primary author. ‘As recently as 2007 a state task force recommended increasing student advising services by increasing full-time faculty. Unfortunately, since then percentage of the faculty that works full time has actually declined.’” (Flannery, 2013)
  5. They fail out, likely because they never learned how to learn. Students in MyEdu’s qualitative research study indicated that the emotional stresses of school were often accompanied by actual failure of course content. These students that fail out are typically poorly prepared for the autonomy and rigor of college. In a seminal paper examining two longitudinal studies of college students, researchers found that “For community college students… declines in college preparation account for almost 90 percent of the total drop in completion rates.” (Bound, Lovenheim, & Turner, 2009) This makes sense: if a student in high school never acquired strategies and techniques for learning, they would be poorly prepared for the independence and self-direction necessary to succeed in college. This is unfortunately ironic, because research also indicates that “students who got more education than they otherwise would have actually benefitted more than their peers.” (Hout, 2012) Counter intuitively, schools might provide the most benefit by retaining students who experience failure, rather than systematically removing them.

These findings have implications on how we shape technology and products to support students in their journey, and when I reflect on the findings, I see a series of contradictions.

  • Education technology assumes students are motivated, but students often lack emotional maturity and drive.
  • Education technology assumes students will arrange time to learn, but students are busy working to sustain themselves.
  • Education technology makes it easy to track objective growth, but difficult to track emotional growth.
  • Education technology assumes students know how to learn, but they may have never been taught that skill.
  • Education technology forces a regression to the mean, but students need individualized help and attention.

When you blend together the cost of education, the completion issues, and these contradictions, there’s this strange elephant in the room: completion in college is an emotional and experiential issue, not an intellectual or knowledge-acquisition issue. We don’t need better teaching and learning. We need to foster better community, better sense of belonging, better interpersonal relationships, better mentorships, and better guidance. This should be the stuff of educational technology – not simply content repositories or knowledge dissemination.

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