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Percent of First Year College Dropout Students: The Reasons Students Drop Out

What is the percent of first-year college dropouts, and why do so many students drop out before finishing or earning a degree? Although there are several factors that contribute to the percentage of college dropouts, two major studies have revealed the main reason students drop out of college.

Why Students Drop Out of College and How to Help Students Graduate

Although there are exceptions, most students begin college with every intention of graduating, but the percent of first year college dropouts is alarmingly high. In fact, approximately 35 percent of students who enter college will drop out during the first year. Moreover, according to a 2005 report issued by The Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group, only 63 percent of students who enroll in a four-year university will earn a degree, and it will take them an average of six years to do so. The other 37 percent will either drop out of college before finishing or else flunk out of their programs of study. (USA Today).

More recently, however,Mary Beth Marklein, writing for USA Today, reports that nationally, four-year colleges graduated an average of only 53-percent of entering students within six years, and graduation rates of less than 30-percent are often the case, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute, “a conservative think tank” (2011).

Marklein provides some examples from the study, in which schools were grouped by categories in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges:

  • Among schools requiring only a high school diploma for admission, Walla Walla University and Heritage University, both in Washington state, reported graduation rates of 53-percent and 17-percent respectively.
  • Among colleges requiring high-school GPAs of B-minus or better, John Carroll University in Cleveland and Chicago State University in Illinois graduated 74-percent versus 16-percent, respectively.
  • In what Barron’s Profiles rates the "most competitive" group, Amherst College in Massachusetts and Reed College in Portland, Oregon, graduated 96-percent versus 76-percent, respectively.

Main Reason Students Drop Out of College

Why is the percent of first year college dropout students so high? Then again, why is the overall number of dropouts so high? Granted, some students drop out because they’re too lazy to apply themselves, while others drop out because they really aren’t interested in obtaining a higher education and only enrolled to please their parents or because their friends were going to college. However, these students seem to be in the minority. According to a study conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2009, the main reason students drop out of college is “because they need money for survival” (

Echoing the findings of the Gates’ Foundation, Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group, released a 2009 report showing that “most dropouts leave college because they have trouble going to school while working to support themselves.” The report, entitled “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” was based on a survey of more than 600 individuals aged 22 to 30 and compared those students who began college but did not graduate to those who earned a degree from either a two-year or four-year institution of higher education. (Lewin, 2009)

Working Students More Likely to Drop Out of College

Unlike in the past, the majority of students today work and many have families, and although they might receive financial aid of some sort, it’s not enough to live on or to support a family. Complicating the problem, according to Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda, is the fact that few working students receive any financial assistance from their families and those receiving financial aid from the educational system find it insufficient. (Lewin, 2009)

Interestingly, the Public Agenda study noted (with a margin of error of plus or minus five percent, of first year college dropout students) that nearly six in ten did not receive any tuition assistance from parents. This is in contrast to the data which showed that among students who graduated, more than six in ten received tuition assistance from parents. (Lewin, 2009)