Archives: College Completion Rates in the U.S. need to improve

Originally published in March 2011
Simon Nguyen

The U.S. is falling behind other countries in college graduation rates. Once leading the world in college completion, the country has dropped to a tie for 9th in the critical demographic of 25-34 year olds with a graduation rate of 42%. This means that approximately 58% of Americans in this age group do not have at least a 2-year associate degree. These numbers are disappointing, considering the fact Americans have more access to higher education than people in other countries. What are the reasons behind this decline?

Slowing college completion rates in the U.S. can be partly attributed to the dismal high school dropout rate. Roughly 30% of all U.S. students fail to complete their secondary education. It is hard to achieve a good college completion rate, if a sizable chunk of the population does not even qualify for college. Interestingly, the dropout rates are most severe among Hispanics and African Americans while Asians enjoy extremely low rates. This indicates that education culture is a contributing factor in one’s academic pursuit.

The fact that the U.S. education system appears to favor quantity over quality is another reason why college graduation rates are underwhelmed. There are simply too many colleges and universities in America. Case in point, there are at least two dozen universities in my hometown of San Diego. This does not even take into account community colleges and online universities.

While having more access to higher education is generally a good thing, the sheer abundance actually diminishes the value of a college degree. This has caused employers to readjust their valuation of college degrees. In many cases, highly qualified candidates who did not graduate from an elite university are overlooked for high-paying positions. At the same time, ballooning tuition costs and a depleted job market leave students to wonder if their effort is worth the troubles.

The good news is that the Obama administration has made education one of its main priorities, and plans to spend millions of dollars in helping to raise college completion rates. In fact, the 2012 budget proposes putting aside $173 million to fund initiatives that target would-be high school dropouts and adults who don’t have a college degree. Unfortunately, the plan falls short of addressing the excess supply of higher learning institutions. Unless this problem is promptly addressed, the U.S. education system will continue to struggle for years to come.

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