Op-Ed: Colleges can stop the high dropout rate

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By Susan Groenwald, Ph.D.

Special to Campus News

Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates have some company. Today, more than one in five working-age Americans are college dropouts.

Unfortunately, most dropouts aren’t billionaires. Many are non-traditional students who leave school because of non-academic issues: a sick family member, a job loss, or just the pure shock of returning to school after a long hiatus.

Colleges must do more to reverse this trend. After all, they bear some responsibility for the fact that 20 percent of their students walk away.

They can drive down the dropout rate — and get more students to graduate — by investing in staffing support and resources for high-risk students.

The United States has the highest college dropout rate of any industrialized nation. Almost half of all students who enroll in a post-secondary program fail to graduate within six years.

Dropout rates are even worse for non-traditional students — students who commute from off-campus, are part-time, or enroll later in life. Nearly two in three fail to graduate.

Fortunately, some colleges are bucking the dropout trend. By providing targeted institutional support, they’re graduating more students on time — and preparing them for the workforce.

Consider Mercy College in New York. It’s implemented a Personalized Achievement Contract program, which places special emphasis on helping first-generation students from low-income backgrounds.

Each freshman in the program is paired with a professional mentor who offers academic, financial, and career advice. Since its implementation, Mercy’s five-year graduation rate has increased 20 percent.

A student coaching service known as InsideTrack has delivered similar results. InsideTrack provides students with personal coaches who regularly contact students to discuss classes, map out academic goals, and recommend appropriate institutional resources.

In a randomized study, InsideTrack coached more than 8,000 first-year students at eight institutions of higher learning. These students were almost 9 percent more likely to stay in school after their first year than non-coached students. They were also 13 percent more likely to graduate than non-coached students.

At Chamberlain College of Nursing, we’ve developed a philosophy called Chamberlain Care, which focuses on taking extraordinary care of students and providing them robust resources.

A recent Gallup poll revealed that a primary factor in an individual’s success in school and the workplace was having a faculty member who “cared about them as a person.” Yet only 22 percent of those surveyed reported receiving such support in college.

Through Chamberlain Care, students have access to success seminars and content-specific tutoring, which teach communication, relationship-building, and emotional intelligence. Students are also engaged in experiential learning through simulated hospital environments and clinical work.

Since the initiative was implemented two years ago, academic performance has surged. In one key course, the number of students who passed increased from 71 percent to 92 percent.

The program has proved invaluable for high-risk students who have failed at or withdrawn from other nursing schools. Since its inception, 230 such students have enrolled at Chamberlain’s Addison, Illinois, campus. Over 90 percent graduated. Ninety-four percent passed the nurse licensing exam on their first attempt — 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

The evidence is clear: Programs that provide support through a caring approach help at-risk students graduate. Now, colleges must start implementing them.

The vast majority of would-be dropouts aren’t trying to be the next Steve Jobs. They’re trying to earn a degree to secure a brighter future for themselves and their families. For their sake — and for that of our economy — colleges must do more to get them to graduation.

Susan Groenwald, Ph.D., RN, ANEF, FAAN, is national president of Chamberlain College of Nursing.

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