Report: State spends millions on students who leave college early

Connecticut spends millions of dollars each year to educate students at state universities who drop out before reaching their second year, a new national report says.

“This is an enormous financial cost for states,” said Mark Schneider, former U.S. commissioner of education statistics and current vice president of American Institutes for Research, a non-partisan think tank that released the report. “We are spending too much money on students who don’t even finish their first year.”

The average amount states and the federal government are spending for public four-year colleges and universities is about $10,000 per student per year, AIR reports. Nationwide, $9 billion in state and federal monies was spent between 2003 and 2008 on students who did not make it to a second year.

For Michael Meotti, commissioner of the State Department of Higher Education, this report just verifies that more needs to be done to increase first-year retention rates.

A lot of public money is going to our universities to subsidize the costs of students who end up dropping out,” he said. “Getting those freshman to come back and graduate is key.”

In the most recent year tallied–the 2007-2008 school year–the cost of educating students at the state’s five public universities who did not make it to their second year totaled about $21 million. More than half of that was in state subsidies to the schools, with the rest coming from various grants.

The report does not reflect the the number of students who may have transfered to other institutions after their first year, a figure that is believed to be fairly high among the four Connecticut State University System campuses.

“Did they transfer successfully somewhere else? I wouldn’t consider that to be a loss for what was spent on them if they left Southern (Connecticut State University) and finished somewhere else,” Meotti said, noting that few colleges track where and if their students transfer. “But I still believe a huge amount is being spent on those who drop out their first year.”

Schneider thinks millions are still being lost too, saying that research has found that 70 percent of students who do not come back for a second year where they first enrolled have dropped out.

“We do not know if they went somewhere else or if they dropped out, but chances are they aren’t in school anywhere,” he said.

The costs of subsidizing part-time students who never graduate or those who drop out during subsequent years also is not included in the report, figures that Schneider said would likely inflate the costs for the state even higher.

Bernard Kavaler, spokesman for Connecticut State University System, said Connecticut State University System is working to retain students past their freshman year through numerous programs.

“We’re interested in student success primarily for the student’s sake, not the budgetary implications. That said, across the four universities freshman-to-sophomore retention has been improving,” he said, crediting the programs that have launched at all four CSUS campuses.

In fall 2009, CSUS’ retention rate of returning freshman was 77 percent, a 5 percent jump in seven years, Kavaler said.

But as long as the state is pouring millions into higher education, Meotti said those numbers have to increase.

“We have limited resources and we should be spending it on those that will succeed,” he said.