Feeling Lucky? Know Your Graduation Odds

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If somebody told you that you had a 50/50 shot of hitting the Mega-Millions Powerball Jackpot each time you played, you'd buy a lottery ticket every day of your life. If you had one-in-two odds of filling out a winning March Madness tourney bracket, you might book a flight to this year's Final Four to enjoy your victory in person. And if you had a 50/50 chance of spinning triple cherries on every pull at the slots, you'd already be on your way to Vegas.

Now what if I told you that you had about the same odds of finishing college in six years. Suddenly your parlay isn't looking so hot. If you're not a serious gambler, you can be forgiven for having your doubts about this kind of investment. And if you aren't overflowing with excess cash, you may be pressed to wonder if college is actually a foolhardy bet.

According to new findings out of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the percentage of students graduating from college in six years or less (which is not exactly fast) has declined for the second straight year. With 96% of the nation's students accounted for in the study, the Clearinghouse found that only 52.9% of students who began college in 2009 had graduated by 2015.

So yeah, if you happen to enjoy a good wager, just bear in mind that the rising cost of tuition will place you in the high-roller room whether you belong there or not.

Gambling on the Recession

According to Slate, the United States already began this year with the lowest college graduation rate among the 18 nations tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The new data says that we're falling even farther off the mark and that the rate of non-completion is climbing faster than ever before.

The National Student Clearinghouse says that declining graduation rates have been fairly consistent across all sectors of higher education. The percentage of students completing college in six years is down regardless of student age, type of institution attended, and full-time or part-time status.

While it may come as a surprise to nobody that students are having a harder time finishing college—indeed, this dearth of collective success has been looming over the higher education discourse for some time now—there is something new and disturbing about this trend.

Historically, students have perceived college as a shelter against the storm of economic disharmony. When job opportunities are down, college enrollment generally tends to spike. And in the face of the Great Recession that gripped the world in 2008 and 2009, scores of students returned to campus and classroom in search of new direction, credentials, and connections. In spite of the rising cost of college and the mounting student loan crisis, college applications and enrollments have been fairly recession-proof. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of graduation.

Fleecing the Poor

It is fair to deduce that the dramatically expanding population of college students over the last decade has produced a wider spread of possible outcomes. In other words, our relentlessly pro-college culture has almost certainly incurred a glut of under-qualified students now leaping into higher education. It stands to reason that some portion of these students lack the academic fortitude to complete their studies.

But this situation hardly tells the full story. In fact, the le le most determinant variable in graduation rates is not academic at all. It is socioeconomic status.

While the decline in completion rates has impacted nearly every sector of higher education equally, the same is not true on a student-to-student basis. For those who struggle financially, the rate of non-completion has been substantially higher.

An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that, as of 2013, 77% of adults from families in the top 25% of American incomes acquired at least a bachelor's degree by the age of 24. This is up significantly from just 40% in 1970. For those in the lowest income bracket, the number was just 9% in 2013, a meager 3% gain across more than 40 years.

In spite of the considerable lengths to which society has gone to include low-income, first-generation, and immigrant students in our national college community, troublingly low completion rates suggest that this is where our efforts end. As much as our colleges have done to court students from the full spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds, the poorest among them continue to experience substantially worse educational (and financial outcomes) as a result of this investment.

Though three out of every four “traditional college students”—those who have recently graduated from high school and have enrolled full-time in four-year public or non-profit schools—will likely graduate within six years, they only comprise 39.6% of the undergraduate population.

By contrast, those students who aspire to a college education in spite of economic limitations will often begin the process either in a two year institution or as part-time students. In either case, the numbers aren't very encouraging. One-third of students who did so in 2009 have already dropped out by now and quite a few more remain in college well beyond their sixth year of study.

The implications of these patterns are considerable, both for struggling students and for our economy as a whole. Whereas college has historically been sold as the ticket to a better life, it may actually be deepening financial woes for those who can't afford another hit.

With the issue of student loan debt front and center in the debate over the value of a college education, it bears noting that students who attend college without graduating endure a 43.5% rate of delinquency. This is more than twice the rate of default experienced by college graduates.

Colleges are inviting low-income students to join their communities but they aren't providing them the systemic support they need to survive there.

So getting back to our gambling quandary, there are personal variables that you must consider before you place your wager. First and foremost, as is always the case when you walk into a casino, the less you have to lose, the poorer your chances are of coming out on top.

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