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New Research Report From Sallie Mae and Ipsos Examines Obstacles to College Completion

“How America Completes College” Shows Change in Focus, Motivation, or Life Change, Financial Concerns, and Mental Health Challenges Are Top Reasons Students Leave College Before Graduating

Students who attended college but did not complete are more likely to be first-generation college students, those from diverse backgrounds, and from lower-income households, according to “How America Completes College,” a new national study from Sallie Mae and Ipsos. Roughly 4 in 10 (40%) students who did not complete their program of study cited change in focus, motivation, or a life change, nearly 2 in 10 (19%) cited financial concerns, and 14% reported mental health challenges as the top reasons for leaving college early, according to the study.

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Sallie Mae’s “How America Completes College” explores the factors and considerations that impact a student’s journey from accessing higher education to completing their degree or program. The study compares the perceptions of higher education among completers: young adults ages 18 to 30 who have completed a 2- or 4-year degree, and non-completers: young adults ages 18 to 30 who started a 2- or 4-year degree but withdrew before completing the program.

“We often talk about the advantages of having a college degree, but it’s important to look at the things that will help students make it to that finish line,” said Jennifer Berg, research director, Ipsos. “The belief that the college degree is going to help them be more successful seems to be an important driver and when they lose sight of that goal they tend to fall off course.”

Key findings of the “How America Completes College” study include:

  • Three-quarters of completers (74%) decided to attend college before reaching high school while more than half (55%) of non-completers decided to pursue higher education after they started high school; 34% of non-completers decided to attend college during or after their junior year of high school.
  • Four in ten completers (42%) reported having a plan to pay for college compared to 26% of non-completers.
  • While 12% of non-completers have definite plans to return to college within the next year, more than 8 in 10 (82%) are open to continuing their college education at some point in the future.
  • Less than half of non-completers (47%) are satisfied with their jobs.

“We know college completion, not just college access, is key to success. Understanding why some students leave college before completing their education can help educators, communities, and policymakers better support those students and increase graduation rates,” said Nicolas Jafarieh, executive vice president, Sallie Mae. “It’s clear from this study we need to ensure planning resources and financial aid are reaching those families who need support the most – including first generation college students and those from underserved communities. Families should also be exposed early to options other than the traditional college experience.”

Completers (90%) and non-completers (84%) agree that traditional college may not be right for everyone. Expanding conversations with families at the high school level to include options such as trade schools, professional boot camps, and other career-focused education could lead to more successful outcomes.

For more information or to access the complete “How America Completes College” report, visit

Sallie Mae (Nasdaq: SLM) believes education and life-long learning, in all forms, help people achieve great things. As the leader in private student lending, we provide financing and know-how to support access to college and offer products and resources to help customers make new goals and experiences, beyond college, happen. Learn more at Commonly known as Sallie Mae, SLM Corporation and its subsidiaries are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.

Ipsos is a global independent market research company ranking third worldwide among research firms. At Ipsos, we are passionately curious about people, markets, brands, and society. We make our changing world easier and faster to navigate and inspire clients to make smarter decisions. We deliver research with security, speed, simplicity, and substance. We believe it’s time to change the game — it’s time for Game Changers! Visit to learn more.

Category: Research


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