Are We Overcounting College Dropouts?

Are We Overcounting College Dropouts?

Yes, says the National Student Clearinghouse -- an organization founded by the "higher education community" -- in a report we feature in White Papers & Research today. The organization points out that a substantial proportion of students graduate from schools other than the one they started at, which can throw off the Department of Education's attempts to track completion.

The official Ed Department statistic is that around 40 percent of full-time, four-year college students fail to graduate within six years, a number I've used in my writing in the past. The NSC's number, based on extensive data tracking students over time, is under 20 percent at both public and private four-year schools. The situation is worse at two-year schools and for part-time students, though.

To get a slightly different perspective, I pulled some numbers from the Census's Current Population Survey. Specifically, I was interested in seeing how many people had only "some college" despite being old enough that they should have graduated -- and how many of them went on to graduate later. Here's a chart that tracks the cohort of people who were 24 in 2003 (around the time they should have graduated if they started at age 18 and went for six years) through the time they were 35 in 2014. It represents those with "some college" as a percentage of people who reported either some college or at least a two-year degree.

This method overstates the dropout problem by including older students, but it's interesting in that it shows college completion continuing to rise significantly into the late 20s, and somewhat into the 30s.

Even then, however, about one-quarter of people who've started college haven't finished. So, things may not be as bad as we thought, but they're not exactly great, either. A whole lot of people are investing time and money in college without graduating.

You can see the spreadsheet where I compiled my Census data here. Hat tip to Bloomberg.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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