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How to Improve College Completion Rates: The Time Commitment Problem

Summary:
The US higher education system does an OK job of enrolling US high school students. About 70% of US high school graduates enroll in a two-year or four-year college. But the higher education system does a poor job actually producing graduates who have completed college. About half of students who enroll at a four-year college graduate within six years; the completion rate is lower for two-year colleges. If the goal of getting more high school student to attend college is to be a meaningful one, it needs to be accompanied by efforts to raise the college completion rate.  Philip Oreopoulos discusses these issues in  a review article “What Limits College Success? A Review and Further Analysis of Holzer and Baum’s Making College Work” (Journal of Economic Literature 2021, 59:2,

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The US higher education system does an OK job of enrolling US high school students. About 70% of US high school graduates enroll in a two-year or four-year college. But the higher education system does a poor job actually producing graduates who have completed college. About half of students who enroll at a four-year college graduate within six years; the completion rate is lower for two-year colleges. If the goal of getting more high school student to attend college is to be a meaningful one, it needs to be accompanied by efforts to raise the college completion rate. 

Philip Oreopoulos discusses these issues in  a review article “What Limits College Success? A Review and Further Analysis of Holzer and Baum’s Making College Work” (Journal of Economic Literature 2021, 59:2, 546–573, subscription required). As Oreopolous details, Holzer and Baum provide an overview of steps to encourage college enrollment and completion. In particular, some of the steps to encourage college enrollment can be fairly low-cost, like requiring high school students as part of their coursework to fill out at least one college application and to take the SAT or ACT, and having states dol a better job of communicating about available financial aid to low-income households. 

Here, I want to focus on policies more directly aimed at improving college completion. For example, one approach discussed in the Holzer and Baum book is a comprehensive set of support services for first-year students. Oreopoluos describes perhaps a prominent example of such a program this way (citations omitted): 

Exhibit A for demonstrating how to improve college access and success is the Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP). MCW [Making College Work] and many other researchers point to it as the central example worth considering. ASAP provides incoming freshman an envelope of comprehensive support services, including tutoring, counseling, career advising, free public transportation passes, and funding for textbooks. Taking advantage of the potential benefits of more structure, students are required to meet regularly with their advisor and tutors, attend a student success seminar, and enroll full-time to participate. The program was experimentally tested on low-income students with remedial needs at CUNY in colleges where the three-year graduation rate was only 20 percent. ASAP doubled graduation rates at CUNY, and similar impacts on persistence were replicated in Ohio ….Among the evidence we have, comprehensive support programs such as ASAP offer the most promise for improving college completion, at least among community college freshman from disadvantaged backgrounds. The impact of ASAP is the largest I know of, compared to other college program evaluations … The program represents an impressive “proof of concept” for how much we could help if we offered a gamut of student support and made participation mandatory. As impressive as the results are—doubling completion rates from 20 to 40 percent— they also highlight serious policy limitations. Even with a full range of proactive mandatory support services and financial incentives to stay engaged, 60 percent of ASAP participants still did not complete their degrees. The best program we know, which … many administrators feel is unaffordable, still fails to help more than half of its target population.

One problem underlying low college completion rates is that the incoming students lack necessary skills to do college-level work. Such students may be admitted to college but then required to take remedial classes before they can begin the classes that lead to their desired degree. Oreopoulous describes the tradeoffs this way: 

Many community colleges provide open access, meaning that they admit any applicant with a high school degree into at least a general studies program. This level of access increases opportunity for all graduating high school seniors to pursue higher education at a relatively low cost. The downside is that many entrants are not well prepared to handle the academic standards of their program. The same colleges therefore often require entrants to take remedial mathematics and English courses before being allowed to take courses that would contribute toward a degree or certificate in their desired program. “About 68 percent of students entering public two-year and 40 percent of those entering public four-year colleges in 2003–2004 took at least one remedial class by 2009” (p. 21). Freshmen find themselves feeling stuck working on subjects they covered earlier and concerned about the longer road they face to completion.
College dropout rates for those taking remediation courses are shockingly high—Jaggars and Stacey (2014) report a 72 percent dropout rate among community college students who take a remedial education course. Adams et al. (2012) use data from 33 participating states and find a 65 percent overall dropout rate by sixth year for students taking remedial courses. Those who require remediation are obviously less prepared and less likely to graduate compared to those who don’t require it, but a consensus of policy researchers agree that reform is needed to avoid discouraging these marginal students facing long delays to complete their degrees.There may be ways to make such remedial classes feel like less of a hurdle to students: for example, by figuring out ways that students can at least start their desired course of study at the same time as the remedial course, and thus do them side-by-side, rather than being required to start their college experience completely focused on remedial courses. Of course, the better answer would be for high schools to produce fewer graduates who need remedial courses.

Oreopolous also focuses on  theme that I have often found myself emphasizing to prospective or newly-arrived college students: making the necessary time commitment. As he writes: “Many college administrators and faculty recommend two or three hours of study for each hour a student spends in class, implying 25 to 35 hours of effort outside of class for someone enrolled full-time (there is a reason
they call it “full-time” enrollment).” However, a typical college student actually studies about 15 hour/week (or so they say), which  means that a sizeable minority study less than that. 
Oreopoulous discusses the results of some polling he carried out among first-year students at the University of Toronto about their expectations of outside-of-class study time. He  writes: 

Low-performing students admit to time management problems and procrastination, but even when asked to plan their hours in advance, they often set low goals. .,. If students entered a plan with fewer than 15 hours of routine study [as their personal plan on the survey form] , we asked “[W]e’d like to better understand how and why you decided on this number. Is it because you did not expect to gain much from studying more, or because you did not think you would haveenough time, or some other factor? Please share your thoughts in a paragraph or two” … [A]mong those who eventually ended up with a fall grade average less than 60 percent. … [a] majority said they felt their target was fair and reasonable. Some justified their answer based on their successful high school experience;
others said they wanted to leave room for sports, extracurricular activities, and friends. Very few of these students anticipated doing so poorly and none said they felt constrained from work. In fact, about half said they were intending to complete graduate studies in the future, 58 percent expected to receive above average fall grades, and the average expected economics grade was 76 percent. It seems as though these students had the wrong reference point for sufficient study time. By the end of the semester … these kinds of students update their academic expectations downward, but rather than respond by planning to study more, they tend to accept their academic fate and plan to study about the same the following semester.

Of course, some college students have highly limited time to study because of job or family responsibilities. But those examples are not the core of the time commitment problem. Moreover, Oreopolous and his co-authors have found no noticeable effects on grades from trying to encourage more study time with an online program of information, reminders, and coaching. Trying to raise college graduation rates, or levels of academic achievement, for full-time students who are only putting in 15 hours or less of study time per week will inevitably be an uphill battle. 

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