Improving College Graduation Rate: What Can Be Done?

Recently, colleges have become subject to increased scrutiny in terms of student access, production of quantifiable outcomes, and rising costs. Graduation and retention rates are among the key metrics used to measure success and progress for institutions of higher learning. While there has been an increase in the transition to colleges, degree completion has remained constant and, in some instances, slightly reduced (Holzer & Baum, 2017). Students who drop out before attaining their degrees can cost colleges millions of dollars in unrealized replacement recruiting expenses and tuition revenue. In addition, failure to complete a university education leads to lower earnings and unfulfilled potential. In the United States, most students who join community colleges do not finish their education. Statistics show that only less than 40% of these learners attain a degree or certificate after six years of enrollment (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Thus, low graduation rates are an urgent issue that needs to be dealt with to ensure that America becomes a middle-class country and provides an educated and skilled workforce for employers. This paper discusses the significance of the problem and proposes a recommendation to solve the issue.

Low completion rates are problematic to individual students and society at large. Belfield and Bailey (2017) reviewed eight American states and established that finishing a two-year diploma is indisputably instrumental in increasing an individual’s earning potential. The researchers found that gains in average earnings linked to attaining an associate’s degree compared to failing to complete are $7,160 and $4,460 for women and men, respectively (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Similarly, Holzer and Baum (2017) state that having a bachelor’s or an advanced degree is connected to an average of 71 and 99% increases in income relating to achieving a high school diploma. Moreover, considering that most financially disadvantaged Americans pursue higher learning by first joining community colleges, failing to graduate may worsen the current economic disparity. Furthermore, this problem poses a great challenge to the competitiveness of the U.S. economy in the global arena as it derails efforts to have a vigorous labor market (West, 2019). Thus, colleges play a substantial role in preparing learners for employment, especially given that emerging technologies and artificial intelligence are reshaping work’s nature.

The demand for workers with postsecondary qualifications is set to increase in the future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are 48 different forms of jobs that need a college credential for an entry-level position (West, 2019). Out of these occupations, 69% are expected to record a faster than average growth rate (West, 2019). Moreover, the BLS has recognized 46 job types requiring a post-high school non-degree award, out of which 36% are projected to grow steadily (West, 2019). These statistics indicate that, in many disciplines, the demand for workers with advanced education is on a gradual rise. As a result, the corporate world may find difficulties filling various positions given the low rates of completion for colleges in the U.S. According to West (2018), a Deloitte survey’s findings show that 39% of big corporation managers reported that they were unable or barely able to locate the talent they needed for their firms. Thus, low college graduation rates should be an issue of concern for prospective and current students, employers, and policymakers.

Barriers to completion have been linked to structural and motivational challenges. Holzer and Baum (2017) argue that the conventional structure of colleges is a deterrent to the successful attainment of a degree or a credential. According to the authors, college completion entails sorting through a devastating amount of data to make difficult choices. For instance, students have to make complex decisions such as what subjects to study to meet course requirements, what to specialize in, and how and whether to enter a four-year program. Even worse, there is insufficient support and guidance necessary for students to make informed selections (Holzer & Baum, 2017). As a result, the presence of overwhelming options leads to poor decisions, which cost money and time, making most learners forced to drop out in resentment. In addition, a motivational barrier occurs in situations where students cannot establish a connection between their future goals and their coursework (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Students who fail to see their coursework’s value demonstrate counterproductive behaviors such as dropping required subjects and not delivering assignments. Thus, college completion is largely affected by motivational and structural barriers.

The major approach to ensuring that students finish their higher education is implementing strategic policy reforms. First, colleges can address structural problems by providing comprehensible pathways from admission to graduation (Holzer & Baum, 2017). This strategy emphasizes simplification of the decision-making process by offering clearer steps with articulate trajectories for navigating academic programs. Furthermore, student support and intake services should students during course selection by offering consistent and structured advice (Holzer & Baum, 2017). Studies show that executing policy changes aligned with guided pathways can enhance student outcomes in terms of increased credit scores, retention rates, and transfer to four-year courses (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Moreover, motivational setbacks can be alleviated by applying the expectancy-value (EV) approach (Holzer & Baum, 2017). This intervention prompts students to connect their lives to their coursework, especially for those who originally demonstrate low anticipations. Evidence indicates that EV techniques used in various educational settings have shown that improving students’ value concerning a specific task positively affects learning outcomes, including interest in a program and academic performance (Holzer & Baum, 2017). Thus, policy reforms are instrumental in enhancing college graduation rates.

Completion rates can also be enhanced by increasing institutional distributions of resources and funding. Empirical evidence shows that library and instructional spending positively affects graduation rates among college students (Holzer & Baum, 2017). Moreover, increasing expenditure on student support services has been associated with improved retention and completion rates. In addition, allocating more resources to programs that foster a shared college experience to target populations such as first-year, first-generation, and nontraditional students can enhance student success. For instance, research indicates that common courses accelerate the integration of students into the college community and have a positive effect on grade point averages (GPA) and retention rates (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Essentially, some colleges have committed more funds to on-campus student accommodation. In this approach, the main goal is to encourage learners to reside within the school. Studies have revealed that students who dwell in residence halls have higher success rates than their counterparts who live at home and in sorority or fraternity housing (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Thus, increased institutional allocations of resources and funding are essential in encouraging students to work toward achieving a college degree.

Policymakers should ensure that financial aid given to college students is enough to guarantee successful completion. Monetary constraints in institutions of higher learning have been linked to detrimental impacts on student performance (Holzer & Baum, 2017). Characteristically, financial aid is distributed in form of grants, loans, and/or scholarships. Scholarships or institutional aid are allocated to learners on a merit-based approach or in some instances for athletics (Holzer & Baum, 2017). In addition, government-backed support, loans, and grants are typically based on the needs of individual students such as those who come from low-income families. Essentially, studies have confirmed that financial help is beneficial for student degree completion and persistence, especially for those who are from low socioeconomic status (Belfield and Bailey, 2017). Generally, these forms of financial help have a positive impact on completion and retention rates.

In summary, low completion rates remain an issue of national importance given the importance of having college qualifications in the modern world. Typically, this problem contributes greatly to poor educational outcomes such as lower incomes, unskilled labor force, and unrealized potential. Moreover, it negatively affects the competitiveness of America’s economy in the global market. As the predictions of demand for employees with a postsecondary academic credential indicate a potential rise in the future, low rates of graduation pose a great challenge to employers. Essentially, an educated workforce is a key to filling positions created by emerging technologies and artificial intelligence. Structural and motivational barriers have acted as major deterrents to successful degree completion. The traditional college structure hinders retention rates as students are overwhelmed by a complex amount of information during course selection. This complication makes students make uninformed decisions, which eventually causes many of them to drop out in disappointment. Motivational setbacks occur when students are unable to understand the link between their aspirations and their coursework. The key approach to increasing graduation rates is by executing strategic policy changes both at the institutional and government levels.


Belfield, C., & Bailey, T. (2017). The labor market returns to sub-baccalaureate college: A review. A CAPSEE working paper. Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment.

Holzer, H. J., & Baum, S. (2017). Making college work: pathways to success beyond high school. Brookings Institution Press.

West, D. M. (2019). Future of work: robots, ai, and automation. Brookings Institution Press.

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