College is part of the classic American dream: shining student centers, high-tech labs, fun clubs and exciting athletic events welcome students ready to take that next step into their future.
But all too often, these students on the path to academic success aren’t getting the coveted degree that they or their families have paid tens of thousands of dollars for.
There will be no cap and gown, no matted degree hung on the wall and, likely, no meaningful job prospects to propel them into the middle class.
Just 59 percent of college students who begin an undergraduate program at a 4-year institution will earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. The cost of dropping out is steep: young adults entering the workforce with a bachelor’s degree earn 62 percent more than their peers with only a high school diploma.
To improve the odds of graduation, colleges and universities have stepped up their support with increased access to mentoring, financial planning, mental health services and quality of life amenities. It’s not uncommon to see students rolling around on the quad with puppies during finals week – the four-legged, school-sanctioned stress relievers are supplied by many institutions.
Despite all the gestures to keep students engaged and enrolled in college, it’s still not working for 41 percent of would-be graduates. According to U.S. News and World Report, as many as one in three first-year students will leave before their sophomore year.
Rather than continuing to collect exorbitant sums of money from the families of continually failing students, the kindest, most responsible option for institutions may be to return students their paid-in tuition and offer guidance for other paths. These paths could include other universities or technical schooling.
Are we giving up on these students? No, but we, as educators, are in the business of creating successes, and part of that success is dependent on whether a student graduates. But we also have ethical obligations as leaders and advocates of higher education.
Consider that the average cost of tuition plus room and board at a 4-year private institution is $43,921, or $175,684 over the course of four years.
It’s a staggering cost, but especially so for the families of students who won’t make it across the finish line. And more than 20 percent of first-year students who drop out still owe student loans on their failed education, further plunging them into economic hardship.
Identifying these students, admitting they are not going to thrive and refunding their tuition is a moral imperative for every institution in the U.S.