Education Chart(s) of the Day: Diagnosing the College Completion Problem

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

March 15, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg

Yesterday we wrote that the college completion crisis is worse than the high school dropout problem.  Today we begin to unpack why college completion rates are unacceptably low, why there is a substantial higher education attainment gap, and what we can do about it.

At its core, our college completion challenge stems from three phenomena.

  1. Insufficient financial resources for families and colleges (if the latter uses them wisely);
  2. Inadequate high school academic preparation; and
  3. Lack of incentive for individual institutions of higher education to take greater responsibility for student access and success.

Our chart of the day below shows that since the introduction of the Pell Grant program, the college access rate for students from low-income families has more than doubled.  That’s cause for celebration.  But low-income students are still accessing postsecondary education (i.e. four-year schools, community colleges, and for-profit trade schools) at a rate that is 40 years behind their upper income peers.



All too many American families from all income ranges overestimate the cost of college and underestimate how much financial aid they can get.  Too many think every college costs $60,000 a year.  Very, very few pay that much; in fact, over 70 percent of students go to much lower cost public colleges and universities.  And too many think they aren’t eligible for student aid because of income limits when in fact regardless of income every legal resident can access at least federal student loans and their consumer friendly repayment options.

Despite decades of marketing about available financial aid, including increased efforts by the Obama administration, students and families capable of going to college don’t go or “undermatch” to less rigorous schools where their likelihood of completion is less, because they think they can’t afford it and in many cases even after financial aid they still in fact can’t.


That suggests a need for increased financial aid to low-income and hard-pressed middle-income families and a financial aid policy redesign that sends a loud and clear message to everyone that “Yes, You Can Go to College.”  Options appear here and here.  And in one state, there’s a nascent campaign.  The latter is worth watching . . . and supporting.  Sign the petition.