The Shadowy Truth About College

by / 2 Comments / 608 View / July 18, 2014

Thousands of freshly graduated high school seniors are nearing the end of the last summer where they can reasonably claim to be kids. For many of us it is the last time that we can indiscriminately and perhaps even a little irresponsibly run around doing whatever we please with minor regard to consequence. Afterwards, we will go to college, spend four years studying harder than we ever have before, graduate, and prepare to drop to our knees begging for a job that probably does not exist while we are straddled with a total of somewhere between 902 billion and one trillion dollars in debt from student loans. 

But those topics are not the issue in today’s article; this article aims to bring to light perhaps an issue even more pervasive than those aforementioned. In the United States today on average only 41% of the student who get to go to college actually graduate within four years according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

That is to say out of every 10 students in at your school only 4 will be walking together at graduation, and that may not include you. Most students still either had to pay or take out loans for the few years of college they attended; however, the “economic incentive” of graduating college with a bachelor’s degree – nearly 1 million dollars in additional earnings – no longer exists.

I am sure this number is especially startling to anyone who has been listening to the post-secondary education policy narrative coming out of the White House lately, which has been almost exclusively centered around increased affordability and accessibility. We spend a great deal of money trying to push students into college who either are not ready or for whom college is not the best choice, and then, as expected, watch them fail.

In a recent trip I took to Letcher County Kentucky as part of The Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, a group in Central Kentucky aiming to amplify the voices of students from all backgrounds in the field of education policy, I met a student whom I will call Robbie. Robbie told us a story of how he had nearly a two-hour commute to and from school everyday. Robbie told us how most of his family dropped out of high school and how he barely finished. Robbie also told us about how on some days he was not sure where his next meal would come from, and perhaps most impactful, Robbie shared with us a story of how he used to sell empty Coke bottles on the bus to his classmates in order for them to have a place to spit their dip (other than the bus floor) and used the money to supplement his extremely meager diet. 

Why are we telling students like Robbie that the only way they’ll be successful is by incurring the cost of attending a four year institution?  How can we expect Robbie to focus on things like the 130-question FAFSA when he isn’t sure what he is going to do about finding a place to sleep? Why are we spending so much time, energy and political capital getting kids like Robbie into college and then abandoning them to fail once they arrive? It’s simply irresponsible.

The realities of college in America are clouded by our obsession with it. We do not focus on matching students’ needs, and for those who might actually benefit from college, we handicap students by pushing them to reject the higher standards that would prepare these students to actually be successful when they get there. These aren’t problems with easy solutions. These aren’t problems that will be solved overnight.  But why isn’t this the top story every night? Education, uniquely, is both the future of our country and its foundation – an informed electorate is necessary for every democracy.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). The Condition of Education 2013 (NCES 2013-037),Institutional Retention and Graduation Rates for Undergraduate Students.

“Liberty Street Economics.” Liberty Street Economics. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 July 2014. <>.

Chopra, Rohit. “Too Big to Fail: Student debt hits a trillion > Blog > Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.” Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 July 2014. <>.

Hsu, Tiffany . “College graduates earn 84% more than high school grads, study says.” . LA Times, 1 Aug. 2011. Web. 15 July 2014. <>.

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  • Rachel Belin

    You raise some important questions here, Andrew Brennen. Among them: Why isn’t more attention being paid to the college dropout rate? Here’s hoping that this article shakes the foundation of the traditional narrative about what’s wrong with post-secondary transitions to higher ed and stimulates more thoughtful discussion about viable solutions.

  • Brenda Drummer Martin

    I appreciate this article Andrew Brennen! I enjoyed your speech at Prichard’s “Our Kids Can’t Wait” conference in Lexington also. Increasing graduation rates is indeed a topic near and dear to my heart. Even though the national average graduation rate increase a couple percentage points to 80% this year, we are still short of our national goal for 2020. We still have too many schools where only half are actually graduating in a 4 year period. I also presented on this at one of our National PTA conferences and would love to partner and present with you and/or your group soon. See my blog