Unseld Lee hopes he doesn't join the unhappy statistics of dropouts from American higher education. But the Cal State Los Angeles sophomore fears he may have no choice.
Because of financial and family problems, Lee may have to skip at least the upcoming winter quarter so he can get a full-time job and save money. If that happens, he is not sure he will ever return to school, let alone achieve his dream of a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and then a law school diploma.
"To be honest with you, I can't make any predictions about graduation because I know I'm a high-risk student," said Lee, a slim, broad-shouldered 20-year-old who wears his hair in a pony tail. "I could be here today and gone tomorrow."
For generations, colleges and universities around the nation showed relatively little concern for potential dropouts like Lee. The emphasis was on recruiting new students, rather than what happened to them later. Many schools, proud of their rigorous curriculum, actually bragged about how few of their freshmen ever made it to sophomore year.
But now that attitude is changing. Spurred by a decline in the pool of 18- to 24-year-olds and by a new reporting requirement from the federal government that will force many schools to disclose graduation rates for the first time, higher education is paying more attention to the causes and prevention of dropouts.
In contrast to the not-so-distant past, the signs of a respected college these days include not just Nobel Prize-winning scholars or a championship football team, but also a high percentage of freshmen who eventually graduate.
"Schools are thinking more and more that way now. They are looking at whether the services they provide are adequate to keep the students they have," said Joan Paschal, an enrollment expert with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based organization.
At many schools, freshman orientation sessions are being strengthened, with more emphasis on helping students choose the correct courses and improve self-discipline. Counseling is being intensified, more remedial courses and tutoring are being offered, and schools are trying harder to fill in financial aid gaps after government scholarships and loans are exhausted.
To increase accountability, and spurred in part by scandals over exploitation of college athletes, Congress last year passed a law that will require colleges and universities to compile and make public by July, 1993, the six-year graduation rate of all students and all athletes. In addition, for the first time the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA) plans to release next year campus-by-campus graduation figures for the nearly 300 colleges in its top division.
These changes, however, are not coming fast enough for critics, who say the dropout problem remains severe--particularly at large state universities known for enormous lecture halls and alienating bureaucracies. Current budget woes, leading to cuts in classes, could worsen the situation, they fear.
According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education, about a quarter of 1980 high school graduates who went directly to a four-year college and attended full time later dropped out and had not returned to any school by 1986. The government and most schools have abandoned trying to measure graduations within four years because so many students these days are taking longer.
The statistics are far worse for those who start at two-year community colleges, some of whom intend to transfer to four-year institutions, and part-time students; fewer than 10% had earned bachelor's degrees within six years.
The riskiest time for potential dropouts is between freshman and sophomore years. In 1990, the average national rates of college students dropping out at that critical juncture ranged from 16.5% at private, research-oriented universities to nearly 48% at public community colleges, reports the American College Testing Program in Iowa City.
How many of those students will try again at other institutions is not known. But there is a clear pattern in other studies showing that blacks, Latinos and low-income students drop out in larger proportions than those from other groups.
"I think the shocking statistics on retention should say something to higher education. Maybe it says something should be changed," contended Sister Kathleen Kelly, dean of the Doheny campus of Mt. St. Mary's College near downtown Los Angeles, which has earned national praise for its success with a largely minority student body.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), who was a sponsor of the law requiring the reporting of dropout statistics, hopes the availability of graduation rates and accompanying statistics about campus crime will influence college application and enrollment decisions. Students and their families "are entitled to the relevant and basic consumer information that is an essential element of an informed choice," Bradley said.
To be sure, some students leave school because they find college boring or feel alienated from fellow students. Others cannot handle living away from home, party too much or become overwhelmed by romantic entanglements or the pressures of a new marriage or parenthood. In the most recurrent theme, departing students complain that no one in the faculty or administration seems to care about them.
Many, however, are pushed out by economic realities.
At Cal State campuses, more than at University of California schools, many students leave school for a quarter or more to work full time, earning tuition money so they can return to their studies. Considered "stopouts," rather than dropouts, they are part of the reason three-quarters of students at public institutions nationally take more than four years to earn degrees. Research strongly suggests that a student who stops out once is much less likely to ever earn a degree than a student who remains enrolled.
That is why Unseld Lee is worried about leaving school. The graduate of Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles at first had to take remedial courses at Cal State Los Angeles; now he has a B-minus average there. Although Lee says he still fears being recognized by gang rivals from his high school days, teachers and friends say he has worked hard to distance himself from what he refers to as his past "gang affiliation."
His mother is dead; his father is disabled and does not work. Scholarships cover his Cal State fees, books and fare for the hourlong bus ride between his South-Central Los Angeles home and school. But he and his older brother are struggling with household bills and recently faced shut-off of their gas service because of delinquent payments. A 21-year-old Volkswagen that Lee bought recently for $900 to make his commute easier sits in the driveway because he can't afford insurance.
The stress of handling personal problems is hurting his grades. "It's hard to tell the professors, 'Hey, I'm capable of learning this but I can't concentrate because I'm thinking about money,' " Lee said.
But Lee has been in special study groups that the campus Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) offers to aid minority and low-income students. He has gotten tutoring and counseling from the program and even personal loans from sympathetic teachers.
"Unseld is not a quitter--far from it," said Helen Padilla, a graduate student who leads one of the EOP study groups. "He likes learning, he gets a kick out of it. I don't see him backing away from it lightly."
David Sandoval, EOP director at Cal State Los Angeles, said he expects the recession to force more students to leave school, even as longer-range economic trends make it even more vital to earn a college degree. He compares his work to building a small "sandcastle of opportunity" on the beach only to have it destroyed by waves of economic and social problems. "Whatever we do is not enough because we don't control what happens between here and the home," he said.
But schools are at least recognizing those social problems more than in the past.
For example, because she was holding a full-time job, Maricela Rodriguez was having trouble keeping up with her studies at Mt. St. Mary's. She left school for a semester last year to earn extra money.
"You get disillusioned, especially when you feel everyone else is doing better than you are. You think maybe college isn't for me," she recalled.
With the encouragement of her counselor and school officials, plus an increase in financial aid, Rodriguez was able to return to campus this fall semester and finish her sophomore year with good grades.
The Mt. St. Mary's Doheny campus enrolls 230 undergraduate women--90% of them minorities, including many who might quickly run into a wall of troubles elsewhere. But two-thirds of its students finish a two-year program or go on to pursue a bachelor's degree, a statistic that has attracted much favorable attention.
The students there are carefully tested on their skills, and many are required to take classes in such basics as note-taking and reading. If students are doing poorly, they are warned early in the semester and are required to develop a "plan of action" to improve their grades. Counselors pay close attention to family and financial problems.
While Mt. St. Mary's approach is helped by the intimate size of the Doheny campus, its dean, Sister Kelly, insists it can be adapted by large institutions. "I don't think you should take students if you can't make them successful," she said.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a prestigious engineering and science university in Troy, N.Y., freshmen who flunk out are given a second chance. The school invites the students back and requires them to meet one-on-one with faculty mentors every week and take seminars on time management and study skills. About three-quarters of the students in the 5-year-old program have earned degrees or seem likely to.
Alan S. Meltzer, a physics professor who is director of the school's Learning Center, recalled a young man who had a D-minus average his first semester at Rensselaer and was required to withdraw: "He admitted he did not do the work, did not study. The amount of school work was so great for him, he couldn't cope." But given a second chance and a lot of counseling, the student earned a B-plus in his first semester back at school and finally graduated last year.
"Once he regained his confidence," Meltzer said, "he began to soar."
Some colleges have decided that the best way to tackle the dropout problem is before students enroll. Across town, at San Francisco State, the Step to College program recruits minority and low-income high school students and offers them tutoring. When they become university students, their class schedules are arranged so that they can work at part-time jobs if they need to earn money for household expenses. Older students are available for advice.
The first group of 47 students began six years ago and 65% have either graduated or are still in school, said education professor Jacob Perea, who founded the program. That figure compares favorably to the 52% of all San Francisco State students who began in 1983 and are either finished or continuing.
Experts say that academic failure or finances are not always the main problems behind dropping out, however. In a national survey involving 1,500 college dropouts, the Noel/Levitz National Center for Student Retention Inc., a consulting service based in Iowa, found that 37% left school with grade-point averages of C-plus or better. Many students say they decided to leave because none of their professors seemed to care about them. That is why many authorities are pushing for more small classes and greater contact with teachers and counselors.
"The more fully integrated or involved in the intellectual or academic or social life the students are, the more they are likely to stay and succeed," said Vincent Tinto, an education professor at Syracuse University and author of a book about student attrition. "The issue in my view is once you admit a student, an institution has an obligation, I would say a moral obligation, to provide that student with a reasonable opportunity to learn, get involved and stay."
At the University of San Francisco, a Roman Catholic-affiliated institution with 6,800 students, the proportion of new students who leave by sophomore year was reduced from about 40% to 27% over the past seven years, reported B. J. Johnson, associate dean for academic services. She attributes the improvement in part to new freshman seminars that use timely topics, such as "Contemporary Japan" or "World Hunger," to teach better study skills.
The goal of the seminars, Johnson said, is to make students feel "more connected to the university." Such efforts are especially important, she added, in an era when competition for students is so fierce.
Small liberal arts schools and highly selective universities, both public and private, do a better job of preventing dropouts than open-admissions community colleges and large state universities where entrance is not so competitive, according to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
For example, among private schools, USC reported that 59.4% of recent freshmen graduated within six years. Stanford University, with tougher entrance requirements, says that 89% of its 1984 freshmen graduated within five years.
In the Cal State system, 24.5% of fall, 1983, freshmen had diplomas five years later, while 26.9% were continuing their studies. The more selective UC system reports that 64.5% of its 1982 freshmen had graduated from a UC branch six years later, while 6% were still enrolled.
Charles Ratliff, a senior analyst for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, said private schools generally have better graduation rates because they select and enroll "a group of folks who are a bit more motivated, a bit more well off financially." But private schools also "are more consumer conscious than the heavily subsidized public institutions."
California's state colleges and universities generally are rewarded financially for enrolling large numbers of students in the fall, no matter what happens to them later. Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who is chairman of the Assembly Committee on Higher Education, has proposed incentives for improved graduation rates, but his ideas received little support.
"Unless universities lose money from high dropout rates and gain money from high retention rates, nothing will change," Hayden said. Because of the sports revenue and prestige, universities spend enormous amounts of energy helping athletes get through school, Hayden added, while most other students face "survival of the fittest."
In an echo of Hayden's words, Unseld Lee, the Cal State L.A. student, said: "I know my chances of surviving college are very slim because of the entanglements around me."
And if he drops out? He answered without hesitation that he would work hard and save money for the college education of children he hopes to have.
"If I have kids later on down the line, I will get them the next step farther than me . . . and I will teach them why I had to drop out."