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California ranks 1st in spending on first-year college students who drop out, study says

October 10, 2010 |  9:01 pm

At a time when California’s institutions of public higher education are battling to maintain state funding, a new report has found that over a five-year period, the state spent nearly half a billion dollars to educate first-year college students who dropped out before their sophomore year.

The report, "Finishing the First Lap: The Cost of First Year Student Attrition in America’s Four Year Colleges and Universities," found that California ranked first in the nation in the amount of taxpayer funds -- $467 million -- spent on students at four-year colleges who failed to return for a second year. Texas, at $441 million, and New York, at $403 million, ranked second and third, respectively, the report showed.

The study by the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, for release Monday, analyzed federal data on retention rates at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities and calculations of state education funding between 2003 and 2008.

Nationally, about 30% of first-year students fail to return to campus for a second year.

Overall, states spent $6.2 billion in general funds and $1.4 billion in grants to colleges and universities for first-year students who did not return, according to the study. Additionally, the federal government issued $1.5 billion in grants to these students.

The federal data do not track students who transfer or go on to complete their studies at other institutions, acknowledged study author Mark Schneider, a vice president at the nonprofit institute. But other federal measures indicate that most students who leave do not return to complete a degree.

“There are taxpayer dollars, large amounts of money going out the door to students who are not coming back the next year,” Schneider said in an interview. “In the K-12 world, we are saying schools are responsible for the success of students. In higher education, we haven’t done that yet and we need to do that.”

The study does not look at reasons for student attrition nor seek to blame them for their lack of success. It also is not a call for disinvestment in higher education but rather a challenge to state governments to demand institutions do a better job, Schneider said.

"We need to start thinking about students as clients and start asking what do they need and how do we satisfy their needs," Schneider said. "It’s a question of productivity and efficiency and how school get better at what they’re doing."

In California, non-returning first-year students at public colleges accounted for about $425 million in state appropriations and $41.7 million in state grants to students in the five years studied, according to the report. Federal grants for the students totaled almost $61 million.

For more information on the report, go to www.CollegeMeasures.org.

-- Carla Rivera