WACO, Texas – Two of every three young people who graduated from high schools across the United States last year enrolled in a college or university, according to a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Specifically, nearly three million high schoolers received diplomas in 2013 (January through October), and two million of them went on to college. Although this statistic makes for great headlines given the individual and societal benefits of higher education, if the pattern of prior years holds, all too many of these students will drop out before they finish.
Looking at those who went to college, 60 percent (nearly 1.3 million) went to a four-year university. Most (1.8 million) went full time, and 31 percent of them were participating in the labor force, either working or looking for work. Not surprisingly, a much larger proportion of part-time students were in the labor force—74 percent. Unemployment rates among young people are generally high, and about 20 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in college who want jobs are unemployed.
More young women enter college than young men, more than 68 percent and less than 64 percent, respectively. There is also significant variation by race/ethnicity. The college enrollment rate was higher for Asians (79 percent), than for white (67 percent), Hispanic (60 percent), or black (60 percent) students.
Of course, enrolling is only the first step. To gain significant benefits, these students must stay in school and complete their degrees. As I’ve mentioned before, earnings are higher and unemployment is lower for individuals with college degrees than for those without such credentials. Even so, many who start college never finish. In Texas, less than 60 percent of full-time undergraduates at public, four-year institutions receive degrees within six years. Fewer than 31 percent finish in four years, but 65 percent finish in 10 years. For part-time students, about 44 percent finish in ten years.
One of the major reasons students leave higher education is the cost. Tuition and fees have jumped substantially over time, as have costs for room and board. Student loans can be helpful, although they must be carefully considered to keep the future burden in line with future benefits. Need-based financial aid is often surprisingly generous, with many top schools (including Ivy League-level institutions) committed to meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated needs. One potential way to help students is to provide better information, so they can be aware of all options and the various costs and benefits of each. Enhancing the decision process can help students find better fits and avoid costly mistakes.
In addition, a significant number of students enter college without adequate preparation. Estimates of the proportion of freshmen enrolled in remedial courses range from 20 percent to 40 percent. Nationwide, only 25 percent of high schoolers who took the ACT scored well enough to be considered ready for college in all four areas tested (and only 24 percent in Texas). Taking remedial classes adds to costs and time to complete college.
Another area where there is a need for improvement is keeping kids in high school. Between October 2012 and October 2013, BLS data shows that 529,000 kids dropped out of high school. This data is notoriously hard to capture with so many students moving and changing schools. It’s difficult to keep up with how many are actually totally out of the system, and the actual number could well be even higher.
It is very difficult for these young people to find jobs. Moreover, the majority of them aren’t even looking. The labor force participation rate among recent HS dropouts was less than 43 percent, compared to 74 percent for recent high school graduates who chose not to go on to college. These kids will face many challenges in taking care of their financial needs, and it is likely that many will end up requiring social services.
Keeping high school students engaged in school is important not only for the students’ future wellbeing, but also for helping them become productive citizens. Similarly, it is important to make progress in the area of keeping college students willing and able to stay in and earn degrees. The payoff is huge in terms of future prosperity, both individually and as a society.
Dr. M. Ray Perryman is President and Chief Executive Officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.