Journal Issue: Transition to Adulthood Volume 20 Number 1 Spring 2010
Few decisions matter more to a young person's future than the decision to attend college and earn a degree. As described by Sheldon Danziger and David Ratner in their article in this volume, college graduates have substantially better prospects in the labor market than peers who stop their formal education after high school. In fact, over a lifetime, an adult with a bachelor's degree will earn about $2.1 million—roughly one-third more than an adult who starts but does not complete college and nearly twice as much as one who has only a high school diploma.1 College attendance and completion provide other benefits as well. For example, adults who have attended some college or earned a bachelor's degree are more likely to report "excellent" or "very good" health than those who have only a high school diploma, even when they have comparable incomes.2 College is often where people form their deepest friendships and meet future spouses or partners. Finally, as Constance Flanagan and Peter Levine discuss in their article in this volume, research shows that educational attainment has positive effects on voting and other measures of civic engagement.3
Clearly, many of the benefits that accrue from a college education are explained by the knowledge, skills, and contacts that students gain from their time on campus and in the classroom. From a developmental standpoint, colleges and universities also provide a safe environment for young adults to explore new ideas and interests, interact with people who are different from themselves, and form their identity. For all these reasons, colleges and universities play an indispensable role in the transition to adulthood. At their best, they foster both intellectual and personal growth and prepare young people for productive lives at work and in society. Few public or private institutions have the capacity to do so much good for so many.
My purpose in this article is to examine data on college enrollment and completion in the United States and to explore what might be done to help more young people benefit from the experience and complete college degrees. I begin by reviewing historical trends to show how the numbers and characteristics of college students have changed in the past forty years. Access to higher education, it turns out, has increased substantially, although some racial and ethnic groups remain underrepresented. But success in college—as measured by persistence and degree attainment—has not improved at all. I then examine some leading explanations for why college students do not succeed and review some research findings on interventions designed to help at-risk students overcome barriers. I conclude with some lessons and suggestions to guide policy makers, practitioners, and researchers.