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Pressures of Work and Family Key Drivers for College Dropouts

Jan 12, 2010

By Tom Hilliard

The largest barrier to college completion is the pressure of work responsibilities. In fact, an overwhelming majority of college dropouts say that work and family commitments keep them from returning.

Those are some of the key findings of a new study by Public Agenda on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Public Agenda surveyed 600 current and former college students for its report, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them: Myths and Realities about Why So Many Students Fail to Finish College. The report probes the reasons why some students complete their education while others do not, and followed up with interviews and focus groups. 

The study finds that college students are struggling with adult responsibilities to a greater extent than most Americans may realize: 

  • More than half of all young adults who left college said that a major reason for leaving was needing to go to work and make money;
  • While two-thirds of college dropouts have thought about going back, more than half cite the need to work full-time (56 percent) and family commitments (53 percent) as major reasons why returning would be difficult.
  • Students who leave college are different from those who complete: they are less likely to have a scholarship or financial aid (31 percent to 57 percent), less likely to take out loans (31 percent to 49 percent), and more likely to choose their school on the basis of proximity to home or work (66 percent to 45 percent).

The report proposes policies that would improve college success for working adults, such as allowing part-time students to qualify for financial aid, cutting college attendance costs, and providing child care services.  CLASP proposals that would help non-traditional students achieve college success can be found in Overcoming Obstacles, Optimizing Opportunities: State Policies to Increase Postsecondary Attainment for Low-Skilled Adults.

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