June 14, 2015

Affordability and the College Dropout Crisis

By Andrew Brennen

For those of us nearing the end of adolescence, we are experiencing the last time we can somewhat irresponsibly run around doing whatever we please with minor regard to consequence. There’s a plan to follow on the path to maturity: Go to college, spend four years studying harder than we ever have before, graduate, and prepare to drop to our knees begging along with our fellow graduates for a job that probably doesn’t yet exist while straddled with a total of somewhere between $902 billion and $1 trillion of debt from student loans.

But though this is indisputably both a popular and unfortunate set-up, there’s an issue even more pervasive and insidious.  In Kentucky’s public four-year institutions only, 46.6 percent of college undergraduates finish their degree in six years and 22.1 percent graduate in four.  And in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, just 12.8 percent of students earn an associate degree in three years. 

There is a college dropout crisis.

I’m sure this number is especially startling to anyone who has been listening to the postsecondary education policy narrative coming out of the White House lately, which has been almost exclusively centered around increased affordability and accessibility.  We spend a great deal of time and money trying to push students into college who aren’t ready, or for whom college isn’t quite the best choice, and then, as expected, watch them fail.

Hunter, a high school junior, described to us how the financial pressure of paying for college took a toll on his family.  “My older brother dropped out after Thanksgiving of his sophomore year in college because he didn’t know how to manage his job and the hard classes,” he said.  “He’s paying off something like $26,000 on loans without an education.”

Another high school junior shared a similar cautionary tale.  “A friend of mine had to drop out after his first semester at Union College because he had pressure back home to work and make money rather than go to college and spend money,” he told us.  “The thousands of dollars he spent for that first semester are now wasted.” 

But the financial pressure around postsecondary education can begin long before a student makes it onto a college campus.

In a trip the Student Voice Team took to Letcher County, one of Kentucky’s lowest-income school districts, we met a student who described what so many are up against.


Robbie told us a story of how he had a nearly two-hour commute to and from school every day and that, while most of his family dropped out of high school, he managed to scrape by and graduate.  Robbie told us about how on some days he wasn’t sure where his next meal would come from and shared with us a story of how he used to sell empty Coke bottles on the bus to his classmates to give them a place to spit their dip (other than the bus floor).  He said he used the money to supplement his extremely meager diet. 

Why are we telling students like Robbie that the only way they’ll be successful is by incurring the cost of attending a four-year institution?  How can we expect Robbie to focus on things like the 130-question FAFSA form for financial aid when he isn’t sure what he’s going to do about a place to sleep?  Why are we spending so much time, energy and political capital getting kids like Robbie into college and then abandoning them to fail once they arrive?

It’s simply irresponsible.

The college dropout problem will not be solved overnight, especially since so many of the people students look up to are unwilling to admit we have a problem in the first place.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.

It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.

This op-ed originally ran as part of a package in the Courier Journal reflecting on the release of "Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success."

Andrew Brennen

Andrew Brennen

Andrew is a Senior Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. He is a former member and was previously the Student Director. Andrew graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2014 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019. He is a graduate student at Harvard University.