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Half of U.S. students fail to finish college

U.S. has second-lowest college graduation rate of wealthy nations

Published: Thursday, October 1, 2009

Updated: Thursday, October 1, 2009 11:10

A college degree is generally associated with a better chance of career success in the United States, but, while U.S. high-schoolers contribute to a very high rate of enrollment in higher education programs, now more than ever they are failing to stick to the plan and complete their college degrees.

According to the Census Bureau, the 2007 median annual income of high school graduates without a college degree was $26,894. Those with some college education averaged about $32,874, while those with a bachelor's degree averaged $46,805. According to, a Tufts bachelor's degree will get graduates a median starting salary of $48,200 and a median mid-career salary of $105,000.

True, the average bachelor's degree recipient graduates approximately $20,000 in debt, according to a 2009 College Board Policy Brief, but given the drastic income increase most believe the degree is financially worth it.

Still, the U.S. college graduation rate currently stands at about 50 percent, according to the New York Times. Among other wealthy nations, only Italy has a lower graduation rate.

According to Steven Cohen, a lecturer in the education department at Tufts, the difference between the United States' and other countries' graduation rates has more to do with the factors used to calculate statistics than real differences in education systems: the United States simply sends a higher proportion of students to colleges to begin with.

"When you send more kids to college, you're probably going to have more kids drop out of college," Cohen said. "[In] England, the percentage of kids going on to higher education is far lower than [in] the U.S. So statistics can be very funny."

Cohen added that student finances could be another major factor in America's high college dropout rate.

"In some places, college education [and] university education is largely subsidized by the state, and that's not always the case here. We have very different gradations, obviously. A Tufts education costs a lot more than a Framingham State education, but a Framingham State education costs a lot of money, too," he said.

Associate Professor of Economics Thomas Downes believes that the discrepancy stems from problems with the U.S. education system, specifically the lack of preparation for college in the American public school system.

"From a public provisions perspective, the lingering question that's out there is the one of quality of preparation for college. This is not an issue that institutions like Tufts run into for the most part because selective institutions are choosing people who are well prepared," Downes said. "It is far more of an issue for state universities, state colleges and community colleges," as these institutions have higher dropout rates, he added.

One issue relating to insufficient preparation, according to Cohen, is a lack of funding for public K-12 education.

The message for most people is the way American education is funded is: Buy a house in the richest suburb you can, [and] then you're going to have better schools. And for the most part, that's true," he said.

Cohen said that another failure on the part of U.S. K-12 education is large class sizes.

The national college graduation rate is much lower than the one at Tufts. According to Dean of Undergraduate Education James Glaser, 90 percent of Tufts students graduate in six years.

"We have our challenges, but we're doing pretty doggone good," Glaser said.

High dropout rates don't just apply to undergraduate graduation, however, and even at Tufts, there are a fairly high number of students in post-graduate education programs who choose not to complete their degrees, said Lynne Pepall, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Nationally, 10 years after starting a Ph.D. in the humanities, roughly 50 percent of candidates finish. Many disciplines in engineering fare little better, with the 10-year completion rate for electrical engineers at roughly 50 percent and the rate for civil engineers at roughly 70 percent. Life sciences stand at between 50 percent and 70 percent over the same time period.

"We do better than this at Tufts," Pepall said. Still, the general dropout trend holds true at varying rates for each of Tufts' three types of graduate programs: professional master's programs, academic master's programs and doctoral programs.

According to Pepall, the professional master's programs see relatively few dropouts, as the program is very goal-oriented.

"The students who enter these programs we hope will be able to be gainfully employed when they leave, so they have a strong incentive, and we have a strong commitment to see them through from beginning to end," she said.

Students entering academic master's programs, on the other hand, might not be as firmly committed to their chosen field. Because students enrolled in academic master's programs do not always have a set career plan in their field while studying, they sometimes decide, "‘you know what, I thought I liked it, but I didn't like it as much as I thought,'" Pepall said.

As for doctoral students at Tufts, "there's a fair amount of attrition in Ph.D. programs," Pepall said. "It's a concern at Tufts, [and] it's a concern nationally."

Finances likely do not factor into the attrition rate for doctoral programs as much as they do for undergraduate programs because Tufts often awards its doctoral students merit-based scholarships, while undergraduates remain at the mercy of need-based financial aid only.

Doctoral dropouts usually discontinue their studies for personal reasons, which is why Tufts likes to see its doctoral students graduate within six years, before the complications of family life, jobs and time limitations set in, Pepall said.

"One my greatest concerns is that if people are spending that many years of their life in a degree program and not being successful, what are we doing about that?" she said.

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