October 17, 2006

Public Affairs Reporting (#2)

Dropout Not a Synonym for Failure
by: Andrew Hayward

Four years is an extensive period of time when considering the development of a young person. Sure, most incoming college freshmen are fully-formed physical adults, but how many maintain the same mindset, behaviors, or interests after that four-to-six year experience comes to a close?

There is no way to guarantee success as a college student, much less control other variables. There are a number of questions typically thought to be most common in determining one’s ability to graduate with a degree. Can you maintain your grades at a high level? Can you pay your bills, academic or otherwise? Will you be healthy enough to attend class and finish your work?

For some, those questions are less important than the ones dealing with emotion and interest. Will I still care about my intended major in a few years? Does attending class and furthering my education make me happy? Do I need a college degree to do what I want with my life? Both sets of questions are important, but to some, the pursuit of happiness, immediate or long-term, handily trumps the need to prove one’s worth with a handshake and a paper degree.

Though you may recognize a lot of familiar faces from your freshman year, the national graduation rate shows that a significant amount of students are not sticking around long enough to earn a degree. An Associated Press article published last November stated that just 54 percent of students who started at a four-year college in 1997 had a degree within six years.

Similar data obtained from the Lewis University website places this schools own graduation rate at 48.96 percent during the same time period. The most recent college ranking data from The Princeton Review places the six-year graduation rate for the school slightly higher, at 50 percent (with just 26 percent of incoming freshmen graduating within four years).

Mary DeGraw, associate vice president and dean of retention at Lewis University, has seen students depart for a number of reasons during her tenure at the school. “The students I meet with that are leaving the university usually have plans to continue their education elsewhere,” she said. Among the most common reasons for leaving are financial setbacks, health issues, or lack of preparedness.

“We do see students leaving who change their career interests [and] some that are only going to school to satisfy their parents,” DeGraw claims, later stating that some “leave to go to work because they are offered an opportunity to make some good money and feel they cannot refuse.”

Sam McKnight, a former student at Lewis University, cites a number of reasons for his own departure. McKnight, 22, started in the fall semester of 2002 as a computer graphic design major. His college experience lasted eight semesters, spanning nearly four years until he dropped out this year following the spring semester. McKnight admits to having lost interest in his major over time, but he also felt like the potential end result of his college career did not match up with what he wanted to do.

“There was little to no encouragement to do anything other than marketing with graphic design, and I didn't want anything to do with marketing,” McKnight said, “I wanted to make art.” Despite this, he does not place blame, noting that “the art faculty was really encouraging when it came to being creative.”

McKnight also feels like the lack of a personal support base deteriorated his desire to attend class. Though he went to high school in nearby Plainfield, McKnight spent much of his youth near Grand Rapids, Michigan. After his freshman year in college, McKnight’s family moved back to Michigan, settling in Cedar Springs. McKnight initially moved into a dorm room on-campus, praising the experience as one he was “very happy to be a part of.”

After a year, he moved into an apartment, the first of three he would occupy during his final two years at Lewis. Between the struggle to find stable roommates and the lack of regular familial contact, McKnight began skipping class on a regular basis and was not making much progress towards his degree. “My parents are a huge support tool for me, and having them live two states away kind of lowered my eagerness to go to class.”

Eight semesters into his college experience, Sam McKnight could have had a degree in hand. Instead, he is living in Michigan with his parents and working thirty or more hours a week as a senior game advisor for the GameStop retail chain. More importantly, he is pleased with his decision. “I'm very happy with where I'm at and the possibilities I have in front of me.” McKnight hopes to move up the management ladder at GameStop, and is interested in becoming a store manager at some point.

McKnight is still undecided on whether he will finish his college degree, though if he did, it would be with a different major. He has considered obtaining an associate’s degree in business to enhance his abilities in the workplace, especially with his interest in eventually being promoted to a store manager position.

McKnight may not have all the answers at this point, but he has a realistic idea of how he wants to live his life: “I hope to lead a life where I can be comfortable and not have to live paycheck to paycheck. It might take me a little while to get there but I'm willing to put my all into it.” McKnight intends to move out on his own early next year and work towards self-sufficiency in the wake of bills leftover from his time spent at Lewis.

His story is not unique; if trends continue, roughly half of the incoming freshmen at Lewis this year will not have a degree within six years. Even if college becomes more affordable (which in turn may make young lives more manageable), a massively increased graduation rate cannot be expected. Not everyone is built for the long-term college experience, and many need to figure that out via personal experience. While a college degree can be a helpful tool, it cannot be considered a necessary key to a happy existence.