Financial Pressures Drive Down College Completion - CLASP RADD Chart Series Continues
Feb 28, 2013
This short piece is second in a five-part series highlighting work from CLASP’s recent publication, Reforming Student Aid: How to Simplify Tax Aid and Use Performance Metrics to Improve College Choices and Completion. The paper was written as part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery.
Confronted with high costs and unmet financial need, low- and modest-income students and their families face a difficult choice: work more while in college, borrow more, or do both. When students cannot afford college, it not only limits access to higher education and drives up debt, it also increases (sometimes significantly) the time it takes to earn a degree and/or ultimately complete a credential.
Though students fail to complete postsecondary programs for a variety of reasons, financial pressures appear to be the single largest factor. A 2009 survey of young adults who had left college confirms this phenomenon: 71 percent of students said one reason for leaving was because they had to “go to work and make money;” 54 percent listed this as a “major reason.”
Researchers also think the need to work substantial hours while in college largely explains why so many students now attend college part-time. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse of nearly two million undergraduates over a six-year period found that more than half (51 percent) attended college a mixture of full and part-time. This affected how quickly they could complete their degrees. After six years, 76 percent of full-time students had completed, with just 4 percent still enrolled. By contrast, among students attending a mix of full and part-time, only 41 percent had completed and 27 percent were still enrolled.
We can start to address these issues by protecting Pell Grants, simplifying and better targeting the $34 billion+ we spend annually on tax-based student aid, and giving students and parents the facts about college outcomes. Read our report for policy recommendations to help address the affordability gap.
Why Students Leave School Without Completing
|Notes: Survey respondents were 22- to 30-year-old students who did not complete their postsecondary education.
Source: CLASP, based on data from, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities About Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College, Johnson and Rochkind (2009).