College Dropout Rates Decrease as Student Readiness Increases

Posted April 09, 2014

Student Aspirations, College Selectivity, and Parent Education Level All Linked to Persisting in College

IOWA CITY, IOWA—A new ACT research report shows a clear link between student academic readiness and college dropout and transfer rates. The findings suggest students at the greatest risk of dropping out are those who earn lower ACT® college readiness assessment scores, particularly those with less educated parents and those with lower educational aspirations themselves.

“Our findings reinforce the importance of strong academic preparation and high aspirations in college success,” said Wayne Camara, ACT senior vice president of research. “We must work harder to ensure that all students have access to a quality education and effective college guidance assistance, particularly those at-risk, underserved students who tend to be the most vulnerable.”

The report, College Choice Report: Part 3—Persistence and Transfer, looks at the college outcomes of ACT-tested students in the U.S. high school graduating class of 2012. Seventy percent of those students enrolled in college during fall 2012.

Among those who enrolled, 16 percent dropped out of the higher education system before their second year of study. That percentage rises to 23 percent, however, among students who earned an ACT composite score of between 16 and 19 and to 34 percent among those who earned a composite score lower than 16. In contrast, no more than 10 percent of students earning a composite score of 24 or higher dropped out. The average ACT composite score for students in the 2012 graduating class was 21.1 on a scale of 1 to 36, with 36 being the highest possible score.

Dropout rates tend to run significantly higher for students who planned to earn less than a bachelor’s degree, those who attended a college with less-selective admission requirements and those whose parents did not attend college.

The findings also suggest that students who select a college that doesn’t match their self-reported preferences in terms of college type, location (in state or out of state) or distance from home are more likely to transfer to another institution than those who choose a college that matches their preferences. Transferring to a different college can delay eventual degree completion and lead to additional expense for the student.

“Student preferences matter when choosing a college,” said Steve Kappler, ACT assistant vice president of career and college readiness and head of postsecondary strategy. “Parents and students should strongly consider those preferences when comparing institutions. Similarly, colleges should pay attention to student preference data in their advising and retention efforts. If they don’t, that student who was tough to recruit is likely to be the one who doesn’t stay.

“The combination of academic achievement level, as measured by the ACT itself, and student preferences, as gathered in the registration process, provides valuable insight for students and for institutions as they navigate the difficult path of finding the right fit. ACT remains committed to gathering this essential information.”