Life is complicated and there is no shortage of financial, academic, motivational and societal blockers that could derail an individual from continuing with a college education. Without the knowledge or motivation to seek support from available resources, these students see leaving school as their only option.

The financial challenges of today's college student has been well-covered by the media. Average Class of 2014 graduates with student loans left school owing $33,000, according to an analysis of government data by the financial aid experts at Edvisors. The Wall Street Journal reports that even adjusted for inflation, that's almost double the amount borrowers owed 20 years ago.1

It is also taking students more time to graduate which adds to the cost. Less than half (44 percent) of post-secondary graduates earned their bachelor's degree in four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.2 In other words, more than half of post-secondary college students take longer than four years to finish or never finished at all.

Yet, on average people without a college degree earn about a million dollars less throughout their careers compared to college graduates.3 There is no doubt that a college education improves a person's human capital.

"Even with high tuition costs, the large lifetime returns justify investing money and taking on debt to pay for the cost of tuition," asserts the 2014 report "Staying on Target for College: How Innovation Can Improve The Pipeline to Higher Education" by the American Enterprise Institute's Center on Higher Education Reform. If educational institutions and leaders want to retain their college student populations despite prodigious financial pressures, they must first impart the value of education and a college degree to their student body.

Communicate the ROI

There are ways to counteract the forces that drive college dropout rates. Communicate with students about their futures, including career prospects and earning potential. Keep students engaged by conveying the eventual payoffs.

Take time to understand your students goals and aspirations and use this to shape your support mechanisms. Encourage them to take the right courses, study hard and prep for exams-to meet these expectations. According to the report "Stay on Target for College," about 90 percent of low-income high school students aspire to go to college, yet only 54 percent think this goal is realistic. Many students need an extra boost in support.

Philanthropic and scholarship programs can increase academic performance and attendance. Also, start at the high school level and ensure families and students that they have the resources to choose an affordable college with the right majors. Educate high school students about college and financial aid. Personalized study paths and ongoing counseling can also help prevent students from losing momentum and confidence in the greater goal.

Provide Financial Counseling

Support students with professionally trained counselors, advisers and mentors. Qualified school professionals, a welcoming financial aid office and even tech-based, digital counseling systems can equip students with information about debt management and grant options.

At the high school level, proper preparation during the financial aid phase helps prevent future college students from being overwhelmed with mounting debt and ultimately, leaving school. Help families early in the process understand how financial aid can mitigate the high cost of attending college. Guide students to FAFSA to apply for financial aid. Help them understand complex financial aid letters. Students can actually underestimate financial opportunities by 300 percent,4 which can lead to uninformed and detrimental decision making. If families and students are educated and informed on college financials, students will be more prepared and aware while enrolled and less at risk to dismiss the ultimate payoff in finishing.

Information from the "Stay on Target for College" report states that nearly one-quarter of non-completers (2.3 million students) would have been eligible for a federal grant if they applied.4 Better information and simplifying the financial aid process can help families and students successfully complete the process. Web-based applications providing college net price comparisons and hands-on help from tax professionals can also improve the financial aid process.

Invest in Work-Study Programs

Deploying a work-study program is one tool that can supplement the costs of post-secondary education and increase completion rates, according to the 2014 policy brief, "The Working Poor Families Project."5 In a work-study program, financially in-need students are assigned part-time campus jobs that don't interfere with classes. Many low-income adult students can't afford to stay in school without employment, especially if they need to support their family in addition to financing their education. Unfortunately, academic performance can suffer at the cost of working full or part-time. And as the pressure escalates, students becoming increasingly at risk for dropping out. But on-campus, part-time employment as part of a work-study program can combat that threat and yield positive results. Especially if the job relates to a student's academic interests, employment boosts persistence and supports degree completion, the policy brief reports.

Reports have shown work-study experiences:

  • Support the pursuit of earning a degree
  • Help clarify educational and career goals
  • Increase marketability for future employers
  • Increase the potential for being permanently hired by employers

Advocate work-study programs for the young or adult nontraditional student. The policy brief identifies how work-study can become a program that's not only effective employment, but a tool in career development and financial aid.

  • Provide purpose: Give students meaningful job assignments that help build skills related to their career interests. Support school-work-life balance and increased earning potential.
  • Target students who are most likely to work their way through college: Extend eligibility and structure programs for nontraditional students with low-income backgrounds. Prioritize in-need students who are most likely to work.
  • Invest more in work-study: Appropriate state resources, raise employer match requirements and leverage funding sources.
  • Re-imagine work-study programs as internships: Enable students to earn academic credits, gain on-the-job experience and receive mentorship.

For more state policy recommendations on effective work-study programs, visit "The Working Poor Families Project" Spring 2014 policy brief.

Do you implement any of these strategies to help students combat the debt that often comes with their education?

Resources: Photo; (1) Congratulations to Class of 2014, Most Indebted Ever (2) Fast Facts: Time to Degree (3) College Dropouts Have Debt But No Degree (4) Staying on Target for College (5) The Working Poor Families Project