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Posted at 12:39 PM ET, 12/22/2010

Winter break is high season for dropouts

By Daniel de Vise

Today's guest blogger is Alan Tripp, founder and chief executive of InsideTrack, a California company that provides student coaching to help colleges raise retention and completion rates.

Many college students will spend the holidays with their friends and family, recharge and then return to campus more committed and energized to succeed.

But far too many others will not.

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One of the things we've noticed in our work with thousands of students each day is that the holidays are also a time when many students make a decision to change course. This is particularly true of first-year students just three or four months into their college careers. In fact, half of all students who drop out of college will do so within their first year.

Their reasons are many. Students are naturally likely to reassess their college choices and careers at the end of their first semester. Also, and not surprisingly, our coaches have found that freshmen at traditional colleges returning home for their first extended break can have heightened feelings of homesickness. Other students have second thoughts after underestimating the rigors of college and how to balance those with everyday life.

Whatever the reason, these students will join the 800,000 each year who begin a bachelor's program yet never graduate. When 40 percent of our college students fail to graduate, there's a crisis -- one that impacts their lives, the lives of those around them and a country quickly falling behind.

That the United States is losing ground to global competitors is not new. But we can be grateful there is heightened interest in addressing the national graduation crisis, including the Administration's focus on raising graduation rates.

The obvious question is: how do we do that?

But I would argue that we can't answer that question adequately until we ask another question: why? What is at the root of so many first-year students dropping out?

We know that academics can pose a challenge. And it's important that students arrive on campus ready for college and receive necessary academic support. In addition, college too often carries with it a heavy financial burden, and we should do whatever we can to simplify aid and lower costs.

But we also know there are reasons separate from academic and financial hardships. One of the main findings of the Public Agenda/Gates Foundation study, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, is that a majority of students who drop out have a difficult time balancing work and school, particularly younger college students in their first year. Our coaches see that every day as they help students navigate their college years and ultimately graduate.

Notably, we have seen that early and sustained support for students, especially in their first year, is critical. If we are serious about increasing graduation rates, we must help them connect their daily activities to their academic and career goals, and support them in overcoming the obstacles that typically arise on the road to graduation. We must also understand the various reasons that students drop out. With that information, we can then help students choose a college that matches their needs and build a meaningful connection to that institution.

The President has rightly made increasing college completion a national priority. The federal government and state governments have invested billions in higher education. Every time we guide a student to stay in college and graduate, we get a priceless return on that investment.

That's why at this time of year, and in this economy, we should renew our commitment to turning students into graduates.

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By Daniel de Vise  | December 22, 2010; 12:39 PM ET
Categories:  Attainment, Students  | Tags:  Students drop out at winter break, students drop out at Christmas, winter break dropouts  
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