You may have recently shared a holiday meal with a relative who has a bachelor’s degree, plenty of debt, and not much of a job. You may wonder whether college degrees have become worthless. For dropouts, though, the picture is even worse: The average adult with a bachelor’s degree earns 59 percent more than the average adult who attended college and didn’t finish. And for all the emphasis the United States puts on promoting access to college, especially as a way to improve the prospects of students from poor families, there has been far less of a focus on making sure these students end up with degrees.
The federal government could play a larger role in reducing the dropout risk for poorer students. By tying the payments that colleges receive from Pell grants — a need-based financial-aid program for college students — to graduation and employment, these institutions would have a greater stake in their students’ success.