College & Workforce Readiness

Condition of Education: Are There College ‘Dropout Factories’?

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 28, 2015 2 min read
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When Robert Balfanz at John Hopkins University coined the term “dropout factory,” it described high schools whose graduating class included 60 percent or fewer of the students who entered as freshmen.

According to new data from the federal “Condition of Education” report, it could also describe the average higher education institution—on a good day.

The report, released this morning, notes that 56 percent of men and 62 percent of women who started higher education at a four-year college in fall 2007, and did not transfer, finished a degree in six years or less.

But that’s something of an optimistic number. The rate of immediate college enrollment after high school fell from 70 percent in 2009 to 66 percent in 2013. The socioeconomic gap here is huge: Four out of five students from families who earn in the highest 25 percent of income start college the fall after graduating, compared to less than half of graduates from families whose incomes are in the lowest 25 percent.

Moreover, students in poverty are overwhelmingly more likely to attend two-year than four-year institutions, and are more likely to transfer. As a result, low-income students remain much more likely to end up with a lower degree, or no degree at all.

In fact, the best-performing math students in poverty were only as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree as below-average math students from the wealthiest background.

Here’s an interesting little nugget in the huge data dump: The expectations for higher education fell across the board in the early 2000s, and especially among students in poverty. In 2002, a third of low-income 10th graders expected to earn a bachelor’s degree, and 26 percent expected to earn an advanced degree. Just two years later, only one in four expected to even complete a bachelor’s degree, and the percentage who switched their goal to an associate degree more than doubled, from 9 percent to 22 percent.

It’s pretty much accepted at this point that a high school diploma is not enough to give students access to steady and sustainable jobs. But the data from the federal “Condition of Education” suggest higher education institutions still have a long way to go to fill that need.

You can read the full “Condition of Education” report here.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.