According to a 2011 study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, only 56 percent of students who enter four-year programs graduate within six years. That number plunges to 22 percent for for-profit colleges. Meanwhile, the percentage of incoming students relying on loans is growing—from 2001 to 2009, the number increased from 47 percent to 53 percent, according to a report by Education Sector. The same report also found that borrowers who drop out are four times more likely to default on their loans.
Some of these dropouts grew up middle class with an expectation of getting a degree, like [Christopher and Harmony] Glenn. Others are students from low-income backgrounds, perhaps the first in their families to go to college. Michelle Obama recently launched an effort to encourage these first-timers to pursue higher education, but the odds are stacked against them: Pell grants and funding for state and city universities continue to shrink. Forty percent of students at four-year colleges, and 60 percent at community colleges, are working 20 hours or more to make up for these gaps, according to the Pell Institute.
"A lot of these kids come up against this wall of bureaucracy," said Jennifer Silva, author of Coming Up Short, a book about working-class young adults. "They lack mentors to help them navigate the system" of admissions, financial aid, and choosing classes. "It ends up leaving them feeling kind of betrayed."
Image: College debt, via Shutterstock