Higher Ed’s Leaky Pipeline

By Tamara Hiler

In 2002, I was a sophomore at South Forsyth High School in the booming suburbs of Atlanta. Like a lot of my classmates, I spent that year doing pretty typical high school things — learning the basics of geometry, running for student council, and getting braces. Yes, I was super popular if you couldn’t tell.

Thanks to social media, I have a fairly good sense of how my classmates transitioned from those awkward teenage years into adulthood. But while Facebook has been useful in keeping me up-to-speed on important details like the color of my friends’ bridesmaids dresses, I have little sense as to how well my classmates — or other “Class of ‘04” seniors — have fared educationally and economically since that time.

We were, after all, the demographic of students lucky enough to hit the job market at the height of the Great Recession.

Luckily, a new National Center for Education Statistics report released this summer actually tracked how many sophomores from my 2002 cohort had reached key life milestones a decade later, including finishing school, starting a job, leaving home, getting married, and having children.

While some of the findings weren’t surprising at all — only 28% of my Millennial peers were married and only 33% had children by age 26 — one set of statistics jumped out as being quite alarming.

According to the data, 96% of sophomores in this 2002 sample had completed high school (yay!), and another 84% had enrolled in postsecondary education (also yay!). But shockingly, by 2012, only 52% had attained a postsecondary credential of any kind, and a mere 33% had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002/12)

This means that most students’ journeys through our higher ed system ended prematurely, without the degree or credential they hoped they’d get (three-quarters of the students surveyed said they did expect to complete at least a 4-year degree). And a deeper look reveals that this fate was even more drastic for minority and low-income students, who were far less likely than their white, Asian, and wealthier peers to reach this bar.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002/12)

When college promises to be the surest ticket to the middle-class, having this kind of leaky postsecondary pipeline is incredibly problematic. For one, labor statistics show that students who have a bachelor’s degree or higher fare significantly better in today’s economy, boasting an unemployment rate under 3% and weekly median earnings that are nearly $600 higher. And new research out of Georgetown University found that an increasing share — 55% in 2015 compared to only 40% in 1991 — of well-paying jobs are now going to workers with 4-year degrees.

In addition, students who start college but never finish are three times as likely to default on their loans — in large part because they’ve taken out debt to attend school but never earned the degree they need to secure well-paying jobs to begin paying those loans back.

Labor statistics show that students who have a bachelor’s degree or higher fare significantly better in today’s economy, boasting an unemployment rate under 3% and weekly median earnings that are nearly $600 higher.

Avoiding this worst-case scenario should be at the forefront of any conversations we have to improve higher education in this country. It’s clear we’ve made significant strides on the front end to ensure more students complete high school and attend college in the first place, as postsecondary enrollment increased by 71% between 1980 and 2012. That should be celebrated.

But now our focus must turn to making sure any student who starts college with the intention of earning a degree comes out the other end with the skills and credentials they need to compete in our 21st century economy. Unfortunately, we continue to have few mechanisms in place to dissuade students from attending institutions with poor track records of meeting this goal. For example, we continue to accredit nearly 150 institutions each year with graduation rates under ten percent and another 450 institutions where less than a quarter of students can repay their loans. At every one of those schools, we continue to encourage students to attend by offering federal grants and loans to pay for it, even though we know full well the likelihood of payoff for either the taxpayers or the student is slim to none.

It’s clear we’re not doing all we can to set up students for success from the start. Going back to my high school days, getting a 33% on a test would be considered a failure. And the same should be said for only getting a third of students all the way through the postsecondary pipeline. All idealistic and awkward 16-year-olds should feel confident that a bright future lies ahead — and patching up the leaky pipeline in our higher ed system is the clearest way to make that happen.


Tamara Hiler is a senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way.

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