Higher Ed’s Still Leaky Pipeline

Third Way
Third Way
Jan 7 · 4 min read

By Shelbe Klebs, Education Policy Advisor

2011 was a big year for me. I graduated from Davison High School in a small suburban town near Flint, MI and moved two hours away to attend Central Michigan University. Many of my “Class of 2011” classmates did the same, heading off to other Michigan schools like Mott Community College, Michigan State University, and Central’s biggest rival, Western Michigan University.

Life at Central was transformational for me. I was a shy and awkward kid for many of my adolescent years, but college really brought me out of my shell. I made new lifelong friends, got involved in student government, and took classes that I never thought I would, including a cultural immersion course that culminated in me (a small-town Midwesterner) heading to Beijing, China for a month. Most importantly, though, in 2015, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree in political science. As a Hispanic woman, I’m particularly proud of this accomplishment.

And while I was lucky enough to have the positive and eye-opening experience that attending and graduating from college affords, this same fate did not translate for many of my peers. That’s because as Third Way has pointed out in the past, higher education has a very leaky pipeline. Nearly half of students who begin postsecondary education don’t finish, leaving them without a degree. But considering that a bachelor’s degree is still touted as the best path to the middle class, a leaky pipeline is unacceptable.

Luckily, there have been renewed efforts at the federal, state, and local levels over the last few years to focus on ways to increase college completion. For example, CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) program has made great strides in helping students graduate with associate degrees more quickly, while charter school networks like KIPP’s Through College initiative have put more of a focus on not just getting students to college, but through college. But despite these efforts, recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that this pipeline is still leaky, especially for students who need the mobility of higher education the most.

Unfortunately, some of those students are probably my classmates.

That’s because the new NCES data comes from the 2012–2017 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study which followed undergraduate students from the 2011–12 starting cohort to see how they fared in college and beyond as they entered the workforce. Many of its findings are alarming.

According to the data, only 5.5% of these students completed a certificate, 11.2% completed an associate’s, and 27.4% completed a bachelor’s degree by 2017, six years after starting college. This leaves 55.8% of these students without a degree or credential. Even more shockingly, by 2017, 25.3% of students from my cohort who’d enrolled in college hadn’t earned any credential and were no longer enrolled. Yet we know that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require some degree or certificate. And, we know that a bachelor’s degree is the most transformational degree, as it was for me. Students who achieve it are less likely to be unemployed and will earn 84% more over the course of their lifetime than those who only have a high school diploma.

These statistics look just as bad when disaggregated by race. After 6 years, only 16.9% of this cohort’s black or African-American students attained a bachelor’s degree, followed by 16.9% of Hispanic or Latino students, and only 10.3% of American Indian or Alaska Native students. Further, 29.9% of Hispanic or Latino students left college with no degree and are not enrolled anywhere else — leaving them in the potentially worst-case scenario of having started college and taking on debt with no degree to show for it.

Considering how broken the pipeline remains, it’s clear colleges aren’t doing their part in ensuring student success. Too many students are not completing college, dropping out of the system with no return on their investment. We need to make sure that all students who start college earn a degree that allows them to have a good job and participate in a 21st century economy. Too often, students attend institutions that don’t serve them well and we have too few federal guardrails in place to hold these schools accountable for their student outcomes. We know this isn’t an anomaly, but a systemic issue when only 16.9% of Hispanic or Latino students attain a bachelor’s degree in six years.

As a proud Hispanic woman myself, I feel very fortunate that I was able to have a positive experience at Central. I got a bachelor’s degree and eventually went on to get a master’s degree. But it’s clear that this isn’t the case for many of my peers, even some that I went to high school and college with. In the years since Third Way’s first reporting on this issue, higher education’s leaky pipeline still hasn’t been patched, though it desperately needs to be.

Third Way

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Third Way

Our work championing modern center-left ideas is grounded in the mainstream American values of opportunity, freedom, and security. Learn more: www.thirdway.org

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