The final, and perhaps most perplexing, problem to solve involves “persistence” — a college student’s likelihood of completing a degree. Less than 60 percent of students enrolled full-time at four-year colleges graduate within six years, the College Board has shown, and less than 30 percent of full-time students at two-year colleges graduate within three years.
Not surprisingly, but somewhat depressingly, those who don’t finish are disproportionately poor. Among those born around 1980, only about a third of college students from low- income families got their degrees, compared with about two- thirds of those from affluent families.
As another indication of the challenge, the college completion report from the KIPP charter school network shows an impressive 95 percent of KIPP students receive their high school degree, and 89 percent enroll in college — but then less than 40 percent graduate from college. This is a crucial and challenging problem. The College Board’s College Completion Agenda recommends some strategies to support and motivate students that might help, starting in preschool and continuing after they reach college, but the truth is that no one yet knows what will work.
At its heart, the widening gap in college completion rates between rich and poor students undermines the traditional American notion of equal opportunity. It also represents a missed economic opportunity. Raising graduation rates among low- income students would significantly increase average educational attainment in the United States and, in so doing, bolster productivity.
Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration.