America’s ‘college completion crisis’ is about to get worse

Laveta Brigham

Before 2020, some students in America were struggling to complete their college education — ending up with no debt and no degree. And amid the coronavirus pandemic, there are indications that completion rates are likely to get worse. “The United States arguably already had a college completion crisis and the […]

Before 2020, some students in America were struggling to complete their college education — ending up with no debt and no degree.

And amid the coronavirus pandemic, there are indications that completion rates are likely to get worse.

“The United States arguably already had a college completion crisis and the public health crisis is likely to make it worse,” authors from two think tanks wrote when discussing a new survey of 1,407 college students across the country.

Students at New York University wait outside of a COVID-19 test tent outside of its business school on August 25, 2020 in New York City. (PHOTO: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The poll from Third Way and New America, conducted online between August 6-17 by Global Strategy Group, found that the group anticipates that it will take them longer than usual to complete their degree.

One in three college students stated that they “definitely or probably” needed “more time to complete college due to the pandemic” and that either meant an additional semester (37% chose this option) or an entire year (48% stated this option).

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted college plans across the country, causing some schools to backtrack on plans to reopen campuses while others push ahead with restrictions and students question why they are paying full tuition for a heavily modified college experience.

A dashboard of college status amid the coronavirus pandemic. (The College Crisis Initiative)

‘Fifty-fifty shot at completing college’

On average, “students have a little more than a fifty-fifty shot at completing college,” Tamara Hiler, director of education at Third Way, told Yahoo Finance.

She pointed to data from the National Student Clearinghouse, which showed that roughly only 60% of college students who started college completed within six years. 

College completion rates. (Source: Student Clearinghouse)

Hiler noted that “those odds become increasingly worse for students of color, low-income students, part-time students, and student parents.”

The National Student Clearinghouse found that while overall completion rates improved in recent years, there is still an “overall racial and ethnic completion disparities” which is “substantial.” For instance, African Americans were 40% “less likely to have completed college in six years than Asians,” the report stated. 

(Graphic from report by National Student Clearinghouse)

Widespread remote learning amid the pandemic is also likely to affect the “how many students ultimately cross the finish line,” Hiler added, as college campuses may not be able to provide their usual level of support for students and students who wish to transfer schools may face difficulties with getting their credits recognized. Some students are also taking a gap year or are pausing school to work

“While we know why colleges are so focused on enrollment right now to maintain their own bottom lines, we know that we can’t just focus on making sure students get to college, but that they also get through college,” Hiler said. “That’s why we need additional incentives to encourage colleges to maintain and improve their completion rates and other post-enrollment outcomes.”

The worst case scenario, according to Hiller, is that a bunch of young people “starting college, taking on some loans, but never completing—making it impossible for them to pay those loans back.”

Students wear protective masks as they wait in line at a testing site for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) set up for returning students, faculty and staff on the main New York University (NYU) campus in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., August 18, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

 Aarthi is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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