From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

While the perils of mounting student loan debt are well known and remarked upon, another education crisis is receiving comparatively little attention, despite the threat it poses to long-term economic health.

I am referring to the nation’s dismal college completion rate.

In December, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reported that the U.S. college completion rate had increased for a third consecutive year. The bad news: It is still well below 60 percent.

According to the NSCRC, the overall six-year completion rate for students who entered college in fall 2012 increased by 1.5 percentage points compared to those who entered the prior year, reaching 58.3 percent. That’s the highest rate in the six years the center has tracked such data.

I am certainly glad the trend lines are moving in the right direction, but for me the unavoidable takeaway from these findings is that we are failing our students. Bill Gates, himself a college dropout, has described the situation as tragic.

It is simply not enough to encourage high school students to attend college. Once there, they must be supported and strongly encouraged to earn a degree.

There is a growing recognition that more needs to be done on this front, giving rise to some promising intervention efforts.

The Starfish Early Alert system at Santa Barbara City College, for instance, helps promote student success and retention by enabling faculty and staff to identify students who are experiencing difficulties and connect them with campus services that can help.

I applaud such efforts, but we can do more. One low-cost measure would involve nothing more than stepped up institutional messaging – emphasizing the importance of degree attainment to students throughout their undergraduate careers. This could occur through official communications from registrars and other campus offices.

Central to any such messaging campaign should be this stark reality: Students who take on loan debt but do not graduate are in most cases doubly burdened – they must repay their debts while contending with comparatively fewer employment opportunities.

Then there is the matter of financial support. We know through our work at the Scholarship Foundation that students who receive grants and similar forms of outside financial assistance are more likely to complete college.

In fact, the six-year college completion rate at four-year institutions among Scholarship Foundation recipients is an impressive 81 percent.

This kind of problem is perhaps best dealt with using a multipronged approach – financial assistance combined with targeted outreach to vulnerable student populations, for instance.

Whatever course or courses of action we pursue, one thing is clear: Getting people to college is but half the battle; the other half is getting them to complete their studies.

Versions of this commentary have appeared in the Santa Maria Times and on Noozhawk