High default rates among students who drop out further fueling completion efforts

As the student debt crisis continues to make headlines, NPR‘s All Things Considered recently highlighted an often-overlooked group of borrowers stuck in an especially “vicious cycle”: those who took out loans for college but never finished their degrees. Between 2014 and 2016, almost 4 million undergraduate students with federal student loan debt left college without graduating, writes The Hechinger Report.

Many former students who are struggling the most to repay their debt owe $10,000 or less, but without a degree to accompany those loans, their opportunities are often limited to lower-paying jobs. According to the Department of Education, the default rate for students who do not finish college is three times that of students who graduate. For students who attended for-profit colleges, the outlook is even more dire: almost half of students who drop out default on their loans within 12 years, writes The Institute for College Access and Success.

Facing difficult trade-offs

Showing how these former students can owe more on loans years later than they initially borrowed, NPR notes that many face obstacles to obtaining a credit card or a mortgage and some report having to choose between paying bills for basic needs or making loan payments. Some are faced with a catch-22 of whether to take on more debt to finish their degrees.

“If I made sure that my credit score was my No. 1 priority and that I got these student loans taken care of, I would not have a roof over my head,” said one 25-year-old who left college early.

Efforts to keep students on track for completion

A new book from higher education expert David Kirp calledok, The College Dropout Scandal, describes the tactics some colleges—among them Georgia State University, City University of New York, Rutgers University at Newark, University of Central Florida, Valencia College, the University of Texas, and California State University at Long Beach—have implemented to increase their completion rates.

According to Washington Post coverage, these schools have taken steps to systematically:

  • Identify students with poor grades and others at high risk for dropping out early on.
  • Provide those vulnerable students with information about helpful programs.
  • Train advisers to help students understand all of their degree requirements.
  • Remove requirements for non-credit remedial courses and explain to students why required courses will prove valuable.
  • Pair newcomers with older students to talk through fears and how to measure progress.
  • Reduce lecture class sizes to increase student-teacher interaction.
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