A lot of high school students enter college. Not quite so many actually finish. Only 57 percent of those who start college earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. But until now no one really knew why people dropped out of college. A lot of people suggested that the reason for America’s high college dropout rate had to do with low quality secondary schools. It turns out it’s a little more complicated.

According to a study funded by the College Board in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, it looks like external factors may play a major role:

The model posits that precipitating events or shocks (e.g., changes in tuition) lead students to consider withdrawing from the university. If the evidence surpasses a criterion then the student decides to withdraw. The model was used to identify shocks students were sensitive to and to test hypotheses about the underlying decision process.

The analysis revealed that students were sensitive to six critical events: (a) recruited by other job/institution; (b) unexpected bad grade; (c) roommate conflicts; (d) lost financial aid; (e) became clinically depressed; and (f) a large increase in tuition/ living costs.

The event with the most influence was depression, but colleges don’t technically have anything to do with that.

Only two of these things are factors that are really in control of the colleges themselves, lost financial aid and a large increase in tuition/ living costs. These are also the only two things here that really have anything to do with public policy.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer