Every year, half a million top-scoring students never get a college credential

Every year, 500,000 students graduate in the top half of their high school class, yet never get a college credential—not even a certificate. To put this into perspective, that’s five million lost youth every decade. These students have the skills to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. They would even have a higher than 80 percent chance of graduating from the top 190 colleges. And yes, most of them go to college, but they drop out. What’s worse is that now they only have student-loan debt to show for their efforts.
The effects of this talent loss are immense for both the students and the US workforce. Each year, workers collectively miss out on $400 billion in wages they would be earning if they were college-educated. The US economy is going to be suffering too. By 2025, the supply of workers with a postsecondary credential will fall 11 million short of demand.
The impact of the failure isn’t confined to a specific race or social class either. The majority of the high-scoring students who don’t complete a credential are evenly distributed between the top half and bottom half of the income distribution. They come from all different races, as well. Sixty-nine percent of the students are White, 13 percent are Latino, eight percent are Black, and 10 percent are Asian and other.
Our research shows that students who obtain a BA make $1 million more than high school graduates over a lifetime. So, the question is, how can we help these qualified students earn a college credential? While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, a good start would be investing in support services to help them graduate and career counseling to help them beyond graduation. Allocating just $5,000 more per student towards career and financial aid counseling would make a tremendous impact on a student’s chances of obtaining a college credential. We also should be clearly showing students what kind of labor force and earnings opportunities are available for those in particular college programs. Students with clear career pathways in mind have a much higher chance of graduating.
We can’t stand by idly as we continue to lose hundreds of thousands of qualified students every year. These students are ready and deserve our support to help them along the postsecondary pathway.
To learn more, watch our video or read our methodology.
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Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.
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