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Education Reporter

Dropouts Cost Taxpayers Billions
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Nationwide, taxpayers shelled out more than $9 billion from 2003 to 2008 on college students who did not return to four-year schools after their freshman year, according to an analysis by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). "When students enroll in a college or university and drop out before the second year, they have invested time and money only to see their hopes and dreams of a college degree dashed," said Dr. Mark Schneider, former commissioner of the federal National Center for Education Statistics and a vice president with AIR. "These costs can be heartbreaking for students and their families, but the financial costs to states are enormous."

The 30% of students who didn't return for their sophomore year over the five-year period accounted for $6.2 billion in state subsidies for colleges and universities, and more than $1.4 billion in state grants that students generally do not have to repay. The federal government provided an additional $1.5 billion in grants to these students. Nationwide, these financial supports amounted to nearly $10,000 per student.

The analysis comes at a time when President Obama and some members of Congress are calling for another $5.7 billion in Pell Grant funding, but states are looking for ways to reduce their budgets. Some are asking whether much of the money taxpayers are already spending to support these students is wasted. While the AIR report suggests that it is, some educators and administrators have found fault with the report's conclusions.

Leroy Wade, assistant commissioner of Missouri higher education, said money spent on dropout students is not wasted. "It's a long-term investment" and many students "follow a path that leads them in and out of higher education," he said. "And I think there is value in providing opportunity for those students."

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Education, Kathy Love, noted that the study "doesn't track whether or not students who leave after a year eventually return to college." She views the single year of education as a building block rather than money lost. Patrick Riccards, executive director of AIR conceded that all non-returning students are reported as dropouts because data about why students leave or if they enroll at another school are unavailable. "This is one of the problems with the data- it is the best and worst data we have."

Nonetheless, the losses would have looked even bigger, said the researchers, if they had included students who leave during their sophomore year or later without a degree. Nationally, only 60% of students enrolled in a four-year school graduate within six years. The study also excluded community colleges, which have an even more dismal attrition rate for first-year students.

Taxpayers can visit CollegeMeasures.org to find graduation rates and expenditure data for over 1500 schools in all 50 states. (air.org, 10-11-10; Kansas City Star, 10-26-10)

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