The push to get high school student on the path to college is working: New research shows that 86 percent of on-time high school graduates attend college within eight years.
However, many never finish and those with “some college” are no better off in the labor market than those with just a high school diploma, according to a report released May 1 by the William T. Grant Foundation.
Author James Rosenbaum, a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, examines what happens to students who pursue, but do not complete their higher education in the “The New Forgotten Half,” report, which builds on the original 1988 “Forgotten Half” report that revealed the lack of support for noncollege-bound young people.
This new research indicates progress on the access front, but many unexpected obstacles (lack of counseling, confusing choices, chaotic schedules) that contribute to students failing to complete. While 37 percent of on-time high school graduates enrolled in a community college with the intention of getting a bachelor’s degree, nearly half drop out within eight years often taking on debt and gaining no wage advantage from the experience. Just 33 percent of community college students earn an associate degree in eight years, the report found.
Yet, the payoffs for completion are clear.
For those who get a certificate, earnings on average are 13 percent higher than someone with just a high school diploma. Associate degrees increase earnings by 22 percent and a bachelor’s degree by 34 percent, according to the new report. Graduates also reported higher job satisfaction than high school graduates. However, for those who drop out, “college without a credential has little payoff of any kind,” said Rosenbaum at an event unveiling the report on Capitol Hill Friday.
Too often, students enroll in general education classes without a clear path to a career. They amass a collection of credits, but not the right combination to translate into a credential, said Rosenbaum. The report suggests students need more help making good choices going into college and the supports to be successful. “New opportunities exist, but students aren’t aware of them,” said Rosenbaum.
At the event, Rosenbaum and other panelists advocated for sub-baccalaureate credentials, some of which can yield even better payoffs than a four-year degree. Too many students are pushed to pursue bachelor degrees, while one- and two-year programs may be a better fit or at least a better first step, particularly for at-risk students, said Rosenbaum.
“Policymakers, who themselves have B.A.s are likely wearing ‘B.A. blinders,’” said Rosenbaum. “They focus narrowly on B.A. degrees and they rarely inform students about other good options.”
The panelists discussed stackable credentials as one way to help students experience incremental success on the way to a four-year degree.
Barbara Veazey, the president of West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah, Ky., spoke about how her institution became more intentional helping students finish by improving reading strategies for all students and going into the high schools to promote college readiness and dual enrollment . Also, counselors encouraged students to think about pathway options.
For instance, students interested in nursing can start with a health science technology program at a community college and earn a certificate first as a surgical technician. They can choose to go on to a nursing program or stop and still have some valuable credentials in the job market. These flexible pathways can provide off ramps to accommodate students’ changing circumstances.
“The ultimate would be to make it to nursing. We won’t steer you wrong,” said Veazey. “But you are going to have something when you leave our college.”
Counselors aren’t always informed about in-demand jobs, such as computer technicians or airline mechanics, which require less than a bachelor’s degree. Rosenbaum called for educators to make stronger connections with employers so they are aware of the opportunities and to inform students about the various career pathways.
Gardner Carrick, the vice president for strategic initiatives for the Manufacturing Institute, a effort by the National Association of Manufactureres to close the job skills gap, said companies are eager for skilled employeees, but the industry has an image problem to overcome in luring young people.. “Manufacturers are left scrambling to find individuals to operate machines and they are looking to high schools and community colleges to help fill that void,” said Carrick at the Washington event.
Educators don’t realize the quick timetable and payoff for sub-baccalurate credentials, which can be an alternative for someone who falters in pursuit of B.A., said Rosenbaum,. There is little direction offered to students who drop out of college, yet many affordable and attainable career paths are available through short-term programs.
“We have managed to get most high school graduates into college,” said Rosenbaum. “And then we blow it...We offer them a lottery ticket with low odds of getting the degree they want.”
The new report used national data from the Educational Longitudial Survey following high school sophomores from 2002 to 2012.
A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.