From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

With graduation season fast approaching, many high school seniors are excitedly making plans to continue their studies in the fall. This sobering statistic should give them – and their parents – pause: About 40 percent of the students who start college in the coming academic year will never finish.

The nation’s stubbornly high college dropout rate has long vexed educators and policymakers. So why do some college students fail to earn a degree, and what can be done about it?

Not surprisingly, the price of attending college looms large as a factor. As has been widely reported, that price has steadily outpaced inflation in recent decades. According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees this academic year was $35,676 at private colleges, $9,716 for state residents at public colleges, and $21,629 for out-of-state students at state schools.

Students and families must be clear-eyed about the aggregate expense of obtaining an undergraduate degree, keeping in mind that the process could span six years. At the Scholarship Foundation, we routinely hear from students who have failed to prepare adequately for the full duration of college.

I recommend putting together a financial plan that takes stock of projected college expenses (yearly and in total), family means, and the resources available to help close any gap between the two. The latter would include things like scholarships, grants, and loans. Related questions: What is your tolerance for loan debt? What do you plan to study in college and earn upon graduation? Are you open to less-expensive options, say attending community college for two years and transferring, or going to a state school in lieu of a private school? Will you work as a college student, and if so how much?

A word of caution about taking a job as an undergraduate: In a recent survey of more than 600 former students who failed to complete college, the nonprofit research group Public Agenda found that most had dropped out due to the pressures of juggling work and school.

The point is to be proactive about the financial realities of attending and completing college. The better prepared and informed you are about such realities, the greater the likelihood you will graduate. To be sure, some hardships present insurmountable obstacles by virtue of their severity – grave illnesses, family emergencies, etc. Fortunately, these are relatively rare occurrences.

Of course, finances are not the only reason students drop out of college. Many cite lack of academic preparedness, estrangement from campus culture, and loss of interest in their chosen field of study, among others.

Of these, academic preparedness poses the most daunting challenge. Anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of first-year college students require remediation in English, math, or both. Yet research indicates that students who are required to take such coursework as freshmen are far more likely to abandon their college studies, so that is clearly not the answer.

In the abstract, the solution would seem obvious: insisting on higher academic standards in high school. I realize this is a complex issue, though.

I would be in interested to hear what others have to say about this. Readers, how can we better prepare our students to succeed in college?

A version of this commentary appeared in the Santa Maria Times.