Campus Life

Go The Distance

I recall when I was a late-stage junior at Penn State University, my motivation for college started to flag. So, I went to my all-time best counselor on all things--my Dad-- for his opinion about sticking with the program. He was sympathetic to my point of view because, as he mentioned, he had encountered similar enthusiasm issues during his life with long-term projects of his own.

I went on to explain that I was afraid that if I stayed in school that my lack of momentum would backfire into my grades and damage my overall academic profile. Frankly, I was looking for a quick and easy out as fast as I could get one. My Dad listened carefully and calmly with no judgment on his part about my willingness (and wanting) to drop out. After some back and forth to clarify some details, he then gave me what turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.


He said that I was very close to finishing my junior year, about 75% of the way to the finish line for my degree. After giving me his view on the pros and cons of my conundrum, he then pronounced his advice: "Dave, I know what it's like to get weary at the end of a long road, but trust me on this. If you drop out now, you may never go back, but if you can hang in there and complete your degree, you'll never regret it and you'll benefit from from it for the rest of your life."

Well, long story short: I hung in there, didn't drop out, got my degree, and it has been a key that has opened many door for me across the years. Great, you may say, but why am I telling you this boring story about my life? The reason is the responses to an op-ed piece from the New York Times by David Brooks: No Size Fits All. Here's a sampling (the letters fall under the heading of Why Students Drop Out of College):

Re “No Size Fits All” (column, July 17):

David Brooks rightly claims that it is a national crisis that United States college completion rates have been flat for the last 35 years. But his diagnosis is incomplete.

He claims: “Lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college. They drop out because they are academically unprepared or emotionally disengaged or because they lack self-discipline or because bad things are happening at home.”

This misses the important role that family wealth plays in college completion. In fact, my own research shows that only two background factors matter for college completion: parents’ own education and parental net worth. Race, what job parents hold — none of that matters.

This salience of wealth suggests that student aid has an important role to play, since for disadvantaged students, aid functions like financial equity in easing stress at home and blunting hard tradeoffs (between work and school, for instance). Financial aid and student psychological factors go hand in hand.

Dalton Conley

New York, July 17, 2009

The writer is a professor and dean for the social sciences at New York University.

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To the Editor:

While I agree with much of what David Brooks says, I take issue with his statement that “lack of student aid is not the major reason students drop out of college.” He goes on to state that dropout rates are more closely connected to lack of skills, self-discipline and home-life stability.

As a secondary teacher of many years, I would argue that all of those issues exist, but they are usually worsened by money issues. This is particularly true of the students who attend community colleges, who often have to pay for a significant portion (if not all) of the cost themselves.

A former student of mine was hoping to go to the local community college for automotive studies, but her disabled mother needed the rent and grocery money her daughter paid her. Another former student dropped out of college after a year because his grades in his introductory classes weren’t high enough to merit scholarship aid, and the loans were piling up.

The students who choose these colleges are often the first in their families to attend postsecondary schooling. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are aware that without further schooling, they will remain so. While these students do have other issues, the issues are so intimately intertwined with financial need that one cannot be addressed without acknowledging the other.

I hope that President Obama will recognize this as he continues to push for improvement and expansion of the community college system.

Caroline Siecke

Exeter, N.H., July 17, 2009

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So, why do college students sometimes fail to finish the race? It's not a simple black and white issue.

For all of you who will be applying to college this fall, keep in mind that the world of higher education is a fluid one, with many constantly changing circumstances. My best advice to you (I'm in the "Dad" mode now) is to be flexible and persistent. Be ready for challenges to your status quo and don't be lulled into a false sense of structured security. Things can change quickly, especially finances, in these perilous times, so have Plan B, C, and maybe a D, for good measure. If you do, you'll then be able to experience that great rush of adrenaline that comes from hitting the finish line and knowing that the mission is accomplished.

Don’t forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.