Why Is the Rate of College Dropout So High?
AbstractDuring most of the twentieth century, the U.S. led the world in the percentage of its population with a
college education; today, that lead has vanished. Sparked in part by the growth in the college wage
premium, the proportion of high school graduates going on to post‐secondary school has been on the rise in recent decades. However, this increase in college attendance has not resulted in a proportionate rise in the number of those with four year‐degrees, because the United States has the highest dropout rate in the developed world. With a
college education said to be increasingly necessary to compete in the labor market, it is important to
understand why so many individuals do not achieve success in postsecondary institutions. We address
this issue by examining the college attendance and completion experience of two cohorts of the
National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), that from 1979 and that from 1997. The percentage of high school completers who attend college rose by almost 30 percentage points between the NLSY79 and NLSY97 samples. The bulk of the growth is through starting college at a two‐year institution. This is the case throughout the test score and family income distributions. In contrast, the percentage of college attendees who earn a bachelor’s degree six years after high school completion is unchanged between the two cohorts (at about 37 percent), with an increase for women and a decrease for men.