Only about 60 percent of students who pursue a bachelor’s degree actually complete one, according to “The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America,” a November 2017 report by a commission that was created to study this topic for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Additionally, only about 30 percent who pursue a certificate or associate’s degree meet their goal.
The report goes on to say that “the United States now ranks 11th among the 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries in the percentage of its 25- to 34-year-olds who hold an associate’s degree or higher.” Only 46.5 percent of all Americans in this age group hold a degree. For comparison, 59 percent of Canadians do. 
This low completion rate sets off a series of effects that impact workforce pipelines and the nation’s poverty rate. Indeed, for students, one of the most pernicious effects of being unable to complete a degree is that a higher-paying job is still out of reach, yet student loan payments must be made. Says the report, “While 9 percent of college graduates default on their loans, the default rate among students who do not complete their degrees is almost 25 percent.”
The causes of low completion rates are complex. Even so, stories of needless hurdles being placed in front of students have been reported by both The Hechinger Report, in 2016, and The Chronicle of Higher Education (in November 2017).
Said Chris D. Hutt, assistant vice president for academic advising at Kennesaw State University, in a story that was shared by The Chronicle: “Simple things could keep students from registering, I found. The same problems and barriers emerged again and again, exposing our cumbersome internal processes.”
Hutt’s list of problems and barriers included:
- Registration holds due to unpaid campus parking tickets.
- Required courses not being available during the semester when the student was ready to take them.
- Courses being offered at times that conflicted with work, family or other school obligations.
- Students knowing what they wanted to do, but not who to talk to or how to move forward.
- Students not grasping information or requirements that were communicated in less-than-reader-friendly ways; perhaps buried in 14-paragraph emails.
In the Hechinger Report, another hurdle took the form of financial aid not being disbursed until a week – or several weeks – into the semester, leaving students without the means to purchase textbooks, and thus falling behind.
Having taught college courses myself, I saw this occur with students of my own. In one situation, a student who had won me over with his dedication and mastery of a previous course’s content showed up in a new course a year later in a much different situation. I noticed that he’d been failing to turn in weekly homework. Had I not had previous experience with the student, I might have assumed that he was less than serious about his education.
After I followed up with him regarding his late homework, he finally shared with me that he had been unable to purchase the required book. Fortunately, I had an extra that I was happy to lend and – with that simple fix – he was able to demonstrate the same high level of proficiency in the subject that he had in our previous course.
Unfortunately, not all instructors, or students, have a level of previously earned credibility that allows for the frank conversation that my student and I were able to have.
Some colleges are taking a broader approach. Advances in data analytics tools now allow institutions to run reports on students who have missed registrations or deposits. With the best of intentions, advisors are using this data to identify students who may be in danger of dropping out. But, as Collegis Education Board Member J. Michael Locke reminds us, “Tech alone is not the answer, but technology designed for quality human interaction is what carries us forward.”
The need for empathetic, human discernment remains critical. Hutt reiterated in The Chronicle’s story that the inclusion of one simple, open-ended phrase often made all the difference, “‘How can I help?’ engaged more students than I expected. Many wrote back just to say, ‘Thank you for checking on me.’” (He was referring to a short email he’d sent to 4,000 students who had not registered for the next one or two semesters, in spite of having GPAs of 3.0 or higher.)
When one person is called upon to manage 4,000 students, the temptation to automate must be strong. But Cutt said, “My little email went to 4,000 students, but if we’re going to have an impact on student success, it’s got to be one person at a time.”
So, use all the tools you have. Recognize that many of those tools must help staff save time — and encourage them to use that saved time for personal interactions with students when needed.
Here are some additional moments when simple human interaction might make a difference:
- When emailing, try to keep the message brief enough to be read without scrolling.
- For longer communications, consider that a 14-paragraph email may be intimidating. Could the same information be broken down into multiple short emails?
- Try texting. As a student-friendly medium, a text is usually brief enough to capture a student’s attention, even in the midst of a busy day.
- Include an invitation: “How can I help?”
- If you know of a student who seems to be struggling, consider reaching out to your campus counseling office to let them know. Better yet, ask your student if it would be alright to have a counselor reach out to them. That introduction may seem trivial, but it could mean the difference between your student opening the door to help, or not.
Underscored in “The Future of Undergraduate Education, The Future of America” is the philosophy that there’s no point in having an institution sacrifice quality or access in favor of boosting completion rates. Rather, schools should look to see what “needless hurdles” are keeping their students from completing a degree. It may be that a few minor policy changes could help, or that fostering a culture that embraces the integrated use of data, technology and human interactions, could boost completion rates.