American university students are dropping out at higher and higher levels, and universities are doing too little to keep poor and non-white students in particular from failing to graduate, according to a study.
Nearly 40 per cent of all degree-seeking students fail to graduate within six years, according to a report by a non-partisan advocacy group, The Education Trust. This is the first time graduation rates have been analysed by race. About half of black and Hispanic students drop out within six years, the trust reports.
Despite increased overall enrolments, the American higher education system "is failing to graduate the numbers of students needed if we are to continue to compete in a global economy", the report's author, Kevin Carey, said. "And a disproportionate number of these students are low-income and minority students. For both moral and economic reasons, we must change the way we do business in higher education in this country."
The report cites several reasons for the problem, including spiralling tuition costs and poor preparation at primary education level. Among other things, it recommends that graduation rates should, at least in part, be reflected in funding for public universities.
Four out of five American students of university age enrol in some form of higher education, but graduation rates have not kept pace. At some institutions studied by the trust, one in every four students drops out in the first year alone. Sixty-three per cent of all students graduate within six years. That number falls to 54 per cent among low-income students, 47 per cent among Hispanics and 46 per cent among blacks.
Among the 772 universities where at least 5 per cent of undergraduates are black, the study found, 299 have graduation rates for blacks of under 30 per cent, 164 under 20 per cent and 68 under 10 per cent.
"Over the past ten years, the US has lost its first-place position in the developed world in terms of college-going rates," Mr Carey said.
"Similarly, we've slipped from first in college attainment as measured by the percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree. Every country surveyed but the US made great strides in increasing college attainment rates for the current generation compared with the last."
The Education Trust is an independent organisation that encourages diversity in US universities.