Why kids don’t finish college: Work and family challenges

Here’s why most young adults who start college don’t finish as explained by one of them, 24-year-old Frankie Barria of New York:

When I started college, I was living on my own at age 19. It was just unbelievably hard to maintain my job and a good GPA. Having a roof over my head and food to eat became more  important to me

Barria was part of an hour-long conference call Wednesday on new report on why so many students start and never finish degrees, a problem that President Obama says jeopardizes America’s economic future.

Public Agenda surveyed more than 600 individuals aged 22 to 30  for its new report, “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them.”

The study compared the views of students who started, but did not finish, their college education with those who received a degree or certificate. The national survey, which also included focus groups in five cities, was underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

According to Jean Johnson of Public Agenda,  six out 10 students who don’t finish report they receive no tuition help from their parents. “A lot of us think college is the place where a young person goes and they become an adult. If you look at these young people who are not graduating, so many have already assumed adult responsibilities. They already had to limit their choices because of the reality of their lives.”

When I looked at the survey, I was struck by two facts: How many students felt they received fair or poor guidance from high school counselors about college and how many chose a college because it was convenient, citing location, cost  and how well classes meshed with their work schedules.

Going back to the interview I did earlier this fall with one of the authors of “Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities,” I recalled the bottom line advice from the book: Go to the best college you can. The more competitive the college, the more likely students will graduate because the culture expects graduation.

Johnson wants the Public Agenda survey to prod colleges and universities to recognize the vastly different lives of their students and think of ways that they can better help students who have no family supports since they are the most likely to fall to the wayside.

Hilary Pennington, the director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives at the Gates Foundation, said she believed that once colleges accept students’ tuition checks, they have to commit to working with students to finish school by providing supports along the way.

I also would suggest that we look at the direction that college counselors are giving students, especially those who would be the first in the family to ever attend college.

What do you think? (Look at the report. It has interesting stuff.)

23 comments Add your comment


December 9th, 2009
11:40 am

Wouldn’t be interesting if we ‘tracked’ students after HS? From this release I would probably ask many more questions, mostly to the students and their perception of the ‘preparedness’ for college. Preparedness would cover educationally, financially, and emotionally, to name a few areas.

For a variety of reasons, some students are not prepared for college immediately after high school. I wonder if societies expectation that students attend college right after high school has anything with the results from this survey?


December 9th, 2009
1:01 pm

It would have been interesting to talk to these study participants when they were 19-21 years old and making the decision to quit school. I think you’ll find that they didn’t value education that much at the time. Now that they are facing the reality of a lack of education and their income earning potential and the demands of family life, they understand how foolish they were to throw that opportunity away. Now they can’t go back to school because of their work and family responsibilities. Sounds like consequences of your decisions to me.

jim d

December 9th, 2009
1:15 pm

I wonder how many of these drop outs end up going back and earning a degree later in life?

Personally I have 40 and 50 year old friends that are currently back in school earning a degree. i know of a 28 year old that went back last year to get a degree and teaching certificate—working a bar–to finance his decision.

Anyone have the mean age of college students today?

jim d

December 9th, 2009
1:25 pm

Interestingly I just came across an article that said that 46% of Comunity college students are at least 25 years old.

So it would seem, perhaps, the problem isn’t quite as bad as portrayed. Out of HS, Kids are sowing some wild oats getting jobs, having families and returning to school. Perhaps there is hope for another generation!!


December 9th, 2009
2:11 pm

Refreshing to know we once again have leadership that cares about things like this.

DeKalb Conservative

December 9th, 2009
2:49 pm

Interesting this is founded by the Gates Foundation, especially since he was a drop out himself.

DeKalb Conservative

December 9th, 2009
2:49 pm

I mean funded


December 9th, 2009
2:56 pm

Maureen- Good article. Off topic for a minute; Please keep an eye on education budget cuts. Based on some trial balloons being floated education will see BIG cuts in teacher salaries. I would encourage you to spend some time investigating the reality of where school districts are in a budgeting crisis as is. Dramatic cuts in education will be devastating.

DeKalb Conservative

December 9th, 2009
2:59 pm

Being a first generation college graduate I understood the odds. That said, it isn’t reasonable to think that every student needs to go to college, and as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, many students shouldn’t.

Maureen has an excellent line, “I recalled the bottom line advice from the book: Go to the best college you can. The more competitive the college, the more likely students will graduate because the culture expects graduation.”

Essentially this means failing at graduation in this type of environment is a reflection of the student unable to assimilate to the culture of the school.

DeKalb Conservative

December 9th, 2009
3:02 pm

I think more companies are requiring a college degree today because high schools are so poorly preparing students to enter the workforce. I think most teachers would agree, but their hands are tied because of requirements for achieving certain student levels standardized tests.
– If the measurements were changed and the standards to graduate increased, having a lower graduation rate could be embraced and a diploma could be seen as more of an accomplishment as it had for past generations–not some gateway ticket into college.
- If more people didn’t graduate, then the value of completing high school would be higher and many of these students wouldn’t need to feel like they have to enter college and incure a high amount of debt, just to get a low paying job that a few decades ago could be secured with a high school diploma.

I’ll leave with this statement, Half of the people are dumber than the ‘average’ person.

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December 9th, 2009
8:02 pm

Ditto what Mift said. And, it’s going to be interesting to find out whether school districts are more interested in educating children or in maintaining central office staff.

Ole Guy

December 9th, 2009
10:33 pm

What happened to the “personal responsibility theme”? Whether the folks send the kid to “U”, or the adult decides to go back to the classroom, the processes remain the same…PLAN THE WORK (the work being the project of going to college) and WORK THE PLAN. To be sure, unexpected things happen, in life, which tend to throw that proverbial wrench in the gears of the project. However, it has been both my personal experience, and impersonal observations, which bear out the fact that “unlimited commitement”…the popular tag is DELAYED GRATIFICATION…while not the do-all-end-all in gaining that sheepskin exactly four years from initial enrollment, is, nonetheless, the primary ingredient to proudly stepping on that platform.

The very concept of Unlimited Commitement, of course, ranges from hold-down-the-booze-during-the-week to study-after-work,-and-kids-have-been-tucked-away. Both concepts have worked for different people. Issues such as coming up short on funding, re-orienting career goals, and such, will happen. However, more times than not, unrealistic expectations of what college life demands becomes the bear trap, the trip wire, which derails collegiate plans.

Somehow, ten years after hs graduation, I managed to walk across that platform. During that 10-year period, I did my initial 6-year hitch for Uncle, floundered about, stepped in a bunch of bear traps, tripped a maze of trip wires (figuratively speaking), and, somewhere along the way, wized-up. To this day, in amazement, I ask myself “How’d you dodat”?

Old School

December 10th, 2009
9:38 am

My mom earned her Associates degree back in 1946. She went back to college in her mid 70s and completed a Bachelors in Library Science and continued working as a school system media specialist until she retired at age 81. She and my dad raised 5 kids and put them all through college. Mom also earned a certificate in Electronics from an area technical school and could repair televisions and VCRs with the best of them!

I earned my BS at age 22 and my masters at age 56. It’s a matter of personal goals and how bad you want to achieve them.


December 10th, 2009
2:06 pm

I am 34 years old and I start college in January. I graduated a year late from high school because of health issues I had my junior/senior years. Sadly when I realized I wouldn’t have enough required courses to graduate even in summer school, I dropped out and I was the first one in line that following August to re-enroll. Because of my health, I missed taking my SATs…however I put myself through technical school working two full time jobs because my parents could not afford to pay my way through school. I may had not had their financial support, but they provided tons of other support. I graduated top of my class with a diploma in Computers. I know some of you say big deal…a diploma, but that diploma I worked very hard to earn. From working 2 full time jobs and taking a LARGE course load (35 credits) in one semester, I almost killed myself falling asleep driving one morning from taking my dad to work because I needed his car and I was on my way home. Luckily no other car was involved but mine. It was a miracle that I lived.

Over the years, I have regretted not getting my bachelors degree. It has almost haunted me that I hadn’t attempted it.

When my husband and I separated this year, I looked at my 3 kids and I said to myself I have to do something. I decided to go back to school. This economy sucks and I work in an office and have an excellent job with a great and stable company, but who knows what tomorrow brings.

My hope that when I graduate in 4 years, the job market has recovered and I can find an excellent job in a new field. Old School has it right, it is a matter of personal goals and how bad you want to achieve them. I want this degree and I will earn it in 4 years!

Ole Guy

December 10th, 2009
5:32 pm

Kelly, your’s is a story of true determination. It matters not one bit that others may denigrate your accomplishment in gaining a diploma; your efforts, in many ways, put me to shame for the devil-may-care attitudes I exhibited in my earlier years. Good luck in your collegiate endeavours.


December 20th, 2009
10:50 am

I can sympathize for young adults in a situation where they have to chose to give up their college education, but many play the “I had a rough life” role as an excuse. Many young adults have the necessary tools to finish their education, but are mentally lazy or value short term money over education.

As a young adult I held a job making little to nothing and attending college full time. After my parents moved to another state I still managed to handle education, and my personal life- that’s what college and life teaches you.


January 3rd, 2010
4:02 pm

Great article…I am a high school business teacher and did the “non-traditional route” to college. I agree that our schools are only preparing our students to go to college. I graduated in 1972 with a high school diploma concentrating in business (read secretarial). I went to work for an ad agency in Philadelphia and attended high school at the same time. When I graduated I went to work for them full-time and had great mentors. Bottom line was worked my way up to be an account executive (without a college degree). Had kids, went back to college and 8 years later I earned my Bachelors and am now 55 and working on my Master’s. There are all kinds of routes to an education (being one of 9 children college was not an option for me at the time). However, while my husband and I had the means to send both of our son’s to good private schools we let them know in no uncertain terms they were “not partying on our dollar.” They had to maintain a certain average or they could go to a community college like I started at or at a state university where I finished. One thing parents should ask when their children are applying to college is “how many of your students graduate in four years?” At a small private school my one son is attending their response was “if they don’t graduate in four years then we’re not doing our job. We don’t believe that when your children enter our institution as freshmen they automatically become adults, our job is to help them become adults.” Happy to say son number two is graduating on time.


January 8th, 2010
1:38 am

I grew up with a single mother who was a preschool teacher. My father left when I was 4 and took all of our savings. As soon as I turned 16 I was working and living on my own. I attended community college for 4 years without any real direction or support. I signed up for an internship at Xerox Corp, where I discovered that I had an aptitude for graphics while working on their newsletter. I worked for a few graphics firms, which led me to my current position in a large corporation. My personal income has gone from 24K a yr to a six figure income. I still regret the fact that I never finished college. I have attempted to go back several times, but my work and family life prohibits this. Now, I am married with two children. My wife also has a six figure income. I always stress to my children (ages 3 and 6) the importance of a good education. I have enrolled each of them in a private school and they are also enrolled in after school language classes. I study finance as a personal hobby. We both max out our 401K plans each year and contribute to our kids 529 plans. We have a 4 bdrm 4 bath house and luxury vehicles. I always feel, as though I have to work that much harder than the next person due to the disadvantage of not having my degree. I am thinking about trying to go back to school once again to finish my degree. I wish, that I had someone to guide me as a youth. You can never take an education away from anyone. It will be your most valuable asset.


February 7th, 2010
1:06 am

I’m sorry but the claims of those of you who payed for college and supported yourself 20 years ago are irrelevant. Circumstances have changed, i.e. the ratio of college tuition, food, and rent compared to income. The young adults of today who do support themselves are unrecognized by the cal grants who are given based on family income. Basically the previous generations have failed us.


March 16th, 2010
11:55 pm

im 14 , and researching. I understand what your writing kinda. BUt what happens if the government or so decides high school should only be reserved for students with higher academics? Then what will you think will happen to the teens growing up to be adults do in life ?


May 25th, 2010
7:53 pm

I went back to college at 25 yrs old, job a couple of part time jobs and completed my transfer reqs in two yrs; I then transfered to a school in Southern California (I’m from Northern), got a school loan that helped me survive the semester but I couldn’t find a job so I moved back home (luckily). I ended up getting a full-time job and now it’s tough to finish. I wish I had the money, I would have finished this spring.
Oh well. I’ll keep trying.


July 23rd, 2010
3:16 pm

I dropped out of college after two years. It wasn’t because I didn’t value an education, and no I didn’t get pregnant. IT is because a young person isn’t born with skills that are valuable to employers. One has to PAY for an education. Trying to pay for an education to get skills by working a low-skill minimum wage job is a joke. I worked full time at crappy jobs barely paying my rent and food and basic needs. Forget college. I was trying to not be homeless. And I’m WHITE. Not a “minority”. I almost wish I was a minority maybe then I would have qualified for scholarships and tuition aid.

A decade later after squeezing in a few on-line classes I still have not finished college. My fate is to be white trash because my parents were poor and didn’t plan for to pay for me to go to school.

I’m frugal, I don’t pay for cable TV, I don’t own an I POD, I don’t own a smart phone, I don’t own a new computer, a new car, new clothes, I havent been to the dentist, I havent been to the doctor, I’m overdue for preventative medicine visits…But I’m just white trash and it doesnt matter if I try to save money because 10% of peanuts is peanut dust.