Photo Credit: Brooklyn College Facebook Page
If you think about college in America, some of its most romantic symbols might come to mind—a perfect green lawn leading up to a towering brick building, rollicking frats, big parties, grand lecture halls filled with ideas. College can indeed be a wonderful experience. For many young Americans, however, the experience is cut short.
Shelby Christie, a Brooklyn native, was one of them. In the fall of 2009, she was an eager first-year student entering North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the nation’s largest historically black college. She majored in liberal studies during her first year. However, Christie soon found herself overwhelmed with work and by the end of that year, her grades were awful. It was then that she made the decision to drop out.
Christie’s story is all too typical. While there is no blanket data for Brooklyn and New York’s dropout rates, College Atlas estimates that less than 66 percent of Americans that attend college graduate. Among colleges in Brooklyn retention rates vary. At Brooklyn College freshmen retention is 84 percent. Pratt institute ranks nearly the same at 84.3 percent. For Boricua College it is 66 percent and CUNY Medgar Evers College is at 65 percent.
In October, the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene released new data on the overall health of each community district in Brooklyn. Information on educational attainment is included in the data, and it is helpful when considering the high number of adults without degrees, a number that is linked to dropout rates. Brooklyn’s percentage of adults with college degrees is 38 percent. New York City’s overall number is 41 percent.
Why is the dropout rate so high? One argument is that many students are poorly prepared. “Adequacy of preparation is a really big issue, no question, and unfortunately it is still the case in our country that much of the K-12 system does not do a good job of preparing students for that next step,” said Tom Brock, the Commissioner of the National Center for Education Research.
Internal support may be another missing link. Brock said, “Support from the college themselves is another factor, and especially at most public institutions now and community colleges and many four-year state colleges and universities, there just is not enough in the way of counseling and advising. So I think there’s a fraction of people that simply get discouraged, and are not applying or dropping out very early.”
Brock named two additional reasons for low retention rates in colleges—lack of adequate financial aid and inadequate support from families. John Braxton, a professor of higher education in the department of leadership, policy, and organization at Vanderbilt University, said he slightly disagrees about the impact of finances. His research shows that most students will not enter into a college situation that they cannot pay for at all. While some students do end up overwhelmed, most enter college with a plan, financial aid, and outside help factored into the equation.
For him, the students’ feelings about being accepted play the greatest role in retention rates. “The students sense that the institution is not committed to their welfare as students,” said Braxton. “In other words, they don’t feel there is an abiding concern for their growth and their development or the institution does not put a high value on students and they feel like they are not being treated with respect as individuals.”
Brock noted that from a historical perspective, rates of college graduation have increased. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased from 23 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2014. However, the dropout rate is still problematic for the U.S.’s future goals for higher education.
According to the Organisation For Economic Co-operation and Development, a partnership between global governments to promote growth and development, in 2009 the U.S. set a goal to become the nation with the highest proportion of 25 to 35 year olds with college degrees by the year 2020. A total of 60 percent of adults within this age group would need to have degrees to meet the goal. Currently, 45 percent of 25 to 35 year olds in the U.S. have higher education degrees. Korea has the highest, with 67 percent of adults.
In Christie’s case, alongside her poor grades, she became discouraged because she was unsure of what path she wanted to take. As a result, Christie left college to build herself and develop a better understanding of what she wanted to do. During her two years off, she decided to freelance as a journalist. Christie returned to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in fall of 2012. She majored in History and double minored in Journalism and Race, Class, and Culture.
“My class was still there when I got back,” said Christie. She added, “Navigating the college experience with a mature mind was different. When you come back as a 21 year old you’re like, ‘I don’t need any friends, I am just trying to get this paper because I need to get a job.’”
Christie credits her maturity and the support of her family for helping her to graduate from college in May 2015, her second time around. By then, she said, she knew what she was trying to get out it.