The Completion Crisis

The National Crisis

With student loan debt surpassing $1.5 trillion and projected to reach $2 trillion by 2023, the United States is in the trenches of a national crisis.

More limited-income students than ever are enrolling in college, but only 12% are completing their degrees.

Although there are many important K-12 initiatives supporting students through college enrollment, as they become college freshmen, the support network disappears and they are forced to navigate uncharted territory alone.

With the cost of college skyrocketing 148% since 1980 and Pell Grants covering less than half of what they used to, even after financial aid, students are forced to borrow an average of over $8,000 per year to cover the total cost of college. Of the students who do not complete their degrees, many of them do not obtain a career with a sustainable income to pay off their massive debt, plunging the U.S. into a deeper and deeper hole each year.

College Graduation Rates


0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100

60% Completion

Highest Wealth Group (top 20% of households)

33% Completion

Middle wealth group (middle 40%)

12% Completion

Lowest wealth group (bottom 40%)

But it’s not just about money. First-generation college students often face social and cultural challenges as they have no one in their immediate family network with whom to compare experiences, and limited-income high school graduates often find that their academic preparation was not fully sufficient for the rigors of college-level courses.

The current model is not working. Getting students to college is not the end of the road. In fact, sending limited-income students to college without supporting them academically, socially, or financially is devastating to the aspiring student coupled with a detrimental impact on our economy – and it’s getting worse.

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The Milwaukee Issue

Closer to home, the numbers are even more disquieting. Only 9% of all Milwaukee students will earn both a high school diploma and college degree. Of Milwaukee’s high school graduates, only 14% will earn a two or four-year degree within six years.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, just 10% of Milwaukee’s high school graduates that are African American and 13% of Latino graduates will earn a two or four-year degree. According to the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Milwaukee has the lowest percentage of bachelor’s degree holders for African Americans in any large metropolitan at 12.7% with Milwaukee Latinos at 13.6%.

Milwaukee has one of the highest racial achievement gaps in the nation, graduating only 62% of our high schoolers. Among those who graduate, only 40% will enroll in college, and only 12% percent will earn a two or four year degree. Yet, 35% of Milwaukee jobs require a college degree and more than 60% require some post-secondary education.

Milwaukee Public High
School Graduation Rate

0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100

67.9% white

58.7% hispanic

54.7% black

With the average college educated person earning an additional $1 million in taxable income over a lifetime compared to a high school graduate, the answer to building a sustainable and thriving community is simple: we need to first build a college educated workforce. This goal is only attainable if we commit to seeing students through to completing the last mile of their education.


  • Among all students entering four-year college institutions, the six-year graduation rate is 59 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Report)
  • For limited-income, first-generation college students who received Pell Grants, just 11 percent earned a bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a Pell Institute fact sheet. (Report)
  • More limited-income students than ever are going to college, but we have not moved the needle on college completion. (Report)
  • A post-secondary credential is in greater demand than ever before; and by 2020, 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some form of post-secondary education. (Report) (Another Report)
  • Proactive advising is essential for student success. (Report)
  • The Pell Divide: How Four-Year Institutions are Failing to Graduate Limited- and Moderate-Income Students – Third Way (Report)

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