Students Who Start College but Drop Out with Debt – Are They Worse off Than if They Never Started?

“Students who go to college and drop out with debt and no degree are worse off than if they would have never attended.” That is a statement shared in a recent panel of presidents at the NEASC/NECHE Annual Meeting. Sitting in the back row of a large room, I saw countless nods and nonverbal affirmations to this statement. Most people quickly recognize the wisdom of such a statement. I’d like to offer an alterantive perspective. 

There is more than one potential solution.

When we start to talk about the problem of students dropping out of college, we rarely take time to explore the possibility that there may indeed be more than one solution. To often, we assume that the solution is for people not to drop out. Only, doesn’t this depend upon why people are dropping out of college in the first place? Could it be that the answer draws from a combination of factors? Reductionist approaches to understanding the “problem” often lead to reductionist solutions. Finding ways to help people persist and graduate certainly seems like a reasonable and valuable effort, and there is plenty of reserach to indicate that going to college and graduating creates more opportunities than going to college and not graduating. Yet, people are complex, and so are their backgrounds, goals, aspirations, dispositions, and life situations. 

Is the only value of a college education the degree conferred at the end?

Don’t people gain new knowledge and experiences prior to getting the piece of paper at the end? If so, then there is clearly something more to college than getting the diploma. So, perhaps part of a portfolio of solutions relates to reconsidering the relationship between higher education learning communities and the credentials issued at the end. Maybe there are better ways to recognize learning and valued experiences than a legacy transcript and piece of paper that you mount on the wall. Maybe there are ways to celebrate and document learning along the way such that a person’s resume (or public and online identity) is continually updated. Perhaps this will make traits and knowledge discoverable on the basis of a person’s ongoing development of new experiences, knowledge, and skills. This could be a solution for someone who, for any number of situations in life, stops out or drops out of college. Even for people who graduate, this invites us to think about a means of making lifelong learning an integrated and discoverable part of a person’s public persona.

What if we thought of college education like fitness. Maybe you start with the goal of being able to run a marathon. If you run five days a week but never achieve a marathon fitness level, the running still benefits you in ways that we can prove with empirical evidence. Or, maybe you reach marathon fitness level but some life situation gets in the way of you showing up on race day. You still have the capacity to run the race. You could even do it on your own over the weekend. The people who run 26.2 miles in their neighborhood for fun and the people who do it in a formal race may well have the same fitness level. Why not think of higher education in a similar way? Why does it have to be an all-or-nothing situation? Fortunately, we are in an era where any number of potential technologies and innovations can help us move away from such a limiting mindset about education. 

What does it take to recreate college so that even dropping out with debt moves you forward and is worth the money?

Given what I’ve already written, I’d like to offer those of us in higher education a challenge. Continue on with efforts to increase completion rates. That makes sense. Yet, how about embracing some creative solution for re-imaginging college so that it is clear and evident to the learner, society, and potential employers that a rich and robust higher education experience has transformative value with or without the piece of paper at the end?

Diploma-ism is not good for the reputation of higher education.

I continue to be convinced that making it all about the piece of paper also diminishes the perceived value of modern highe education. The diploma has always been limited in what it says bout a person, or about the breadth of learning and transformation that takes place amid the college education journey. By finding ways to uplift, recognize, and celebrate learning along the way (and making it a discoverable part of a person’s public and online identity), we are likely to find that we are also enhancing the greater public’s appreciation for the value of college. 

This is achievable.

What I’m proposing here is achievable. There are people already piloting efforts. Right now most of those efforts are looking at the issue on an institution level. To make the most progress, we need to pursue system-level approaches. Some of those are underway as well. Yet, this can’t just be about small credentials. For the most traction, I contend that the focus needs to be on discoverability, public and online identity management, and new methods of matchmaking on the basis on people’s learning and experience profiles.