Today marks the release of the 2016 Building A Grad Nation report -- an annual look at American high schools’ progress toward the ambitious goal of a 90 percent on-time graduation rate. Written by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, and released in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education, the 2016 Building A Grad Nation report reveals another consecutive year of good news: across the board, American high schools have achieved a record high 82.3 percent graduation rate.
The outlook isn’t completely rosy, especially when it comes to low-graduation-rate schools and to the ongoing income-level gaps and ethnic disparities among graduates. (Download the full report to learn much more.) But the predominant message is one of a nation whose secondary school students are going in the right direction. Even with graduation requirements becoming more stringent, more students are graduating than ever before, and they’re as ready for college as any cohort of students have ever been.
So why are college graduation rates still so low?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 60 percent of first-time, full-time college students earn their bachelor’s degree within six years. Despite the record numbers of qualified high school graduates, postsecondary degrees are eluding nearly half of them. And the cost of college, which has ballooned a remarkable 1,225 percent since 1978, is a significant factor in this attrition.
Obviously, money isn’t the only factor in something as complex as college dropout rates. But with tuition and fees going up, and more and more students trying to balance school and work, it also can’t be ignored -- and the impact of rising costs goes well beyond freshman year, too.
Last month, the New York Times took an in-depth look at an under-reported predicament: upperclassmen who can afford to get into college, but who lose out on financial aid during subsequent years:
Focused on cost, [students] attend the institution that showers them with the most money. But many learn a bitter economic lesson once they enroll: The debt can mount during the course of an undergraduate career, thanks to fine print, tough academic requirements on grants, and unanticipated tuition and fee increases.
Financial aid for upperclassmen is especially inscrutable, despite highly publicized government campaigns to make pricing more transparent. The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet is supposed to help families understand the details of award letters, while net price calculators let consumers discover how big a discount they might get off a college’s sticker price. But neither of these tools, nor any data on the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, forecasts anything about the costs of sophomore, junior or senior year. And though the government collects reams of statistics on education, there’s little about how financial aid changes for upperclassmen.
Thanks to that combination of factors, students who can easily pay for freshman year end up unable to foot the bill for the remainder of their degree. To help, many end up transferring to cheaper schools, taking time off or working longer hours -- all of which have been shown to reduce financial aid awards and decrease the likelihood of completion even further.
Here’s how we’re helping.
At Scholarship America, our work is focused on getting students all the way through their postsecondary education, from admission to degree. That’s why we’re working on both the policy and the program level to ensure that lost financial aid doesn’t mean a lost opportunity for upperclassmen to graduate.
The Dream Award, one of Scholarship America’s signature scholarship programs, provides funds specifically to sophomores, juniors and seniors in college who may not be able to afford to finish their degrees. Started in 2011 with an initial donation from supporter Katie Couric, the Dream Award has helped two classes of remarkable students continue following their college dreams. We will be proudly honoring the third class of recipients at our Dreams to Degrees celebration later this month.
Through emergency financial assistance programs like Dreamkeepers, we’ve also helped thousands of students stay in school when unexpected financial crises threatened to derail their education. And our work on emergency aid hasn’t stopped there -- we’re also helping develop and document best practices for the nationwide growth of similar programs.
Finally, we’ve made increased transparency and clarity in financial aid a foundational pillar of our policy and advocacy platform. Specifically, we are working in Washington to “require institutional transparency, minimum standards and outcomes from all postsecondary institutions, to ensure that institutions are serving students well and producing outcomes that advance student success.”
America’s students are graduating from high school at a higher rate than ever before. With your support, we can ensure that they take the next step and start earning record numbers of college degrees as well.