05/07/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

Dr. Shaq and the Nation's Real Dropout Problem

This past weekend, basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal graduated from Barry University with a doctorate in education. That makes him not just an exceptional athlete, but an exceptional college graduate as well. O'Neal dropped out of Louisiana State University in 1992 to play pro basketball, but he promised his parents he would get his college degree -- which he did and then some.

We all know that few student athletes make it in professional sports. What's not as well known is that shockingly few Americans students manage to complete college at all. So as commencement season rolls round -- for Shaq O'Neal and others -- maybe it's worth taking a moment to review the stats and think about what they mean for the individuals involved and for the country's long-term economic prospects.

According to data compiled by Complete College America, a nonprofit working to increase college graduation rates, nearly four in 10 students who start four-year degree programs still haven't graduated after eight years. The non-complete statistics for those in two-year programs are even more staggering. Roughly eight in 10 of these students, even those who start out going full-time, still don't have an associate's degree four years later.

Students who go to college part-time fare even worse, and surveys of students who have left school show that having to juggle work and classes is an even bigger factor in leading them to drop out than not having enough money for tuition. Minority college students also have lower completion rates. And of course, since many of these young people borrow money to go to college, they can easily end up in a very bad place indeed -- owing money for college loans, and still having no degree to show to prospective employers.

And despite examples like O'Neal and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, most of those college dropouts aren't getting ahead economically. In this economy, younger workers without degrees are rightly much less optimistic about their prospects. Just 36 percent of young adults who without degrees believe it is "very likely" that they'll be financially secure in their lifetimes. That's compared to 55 percent of young college graduates (and that includes both two-year and four-year degree holders). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers without college degrees earn less throughout their careers, and they are more likely to be unemployed.

Surveys also suggest that young people who don't graduate from college are more likely to be earning lower wages in jobs that pay by the hour. They're also less likely to see their current jobs as offering a chance for career growth. Statistically, having a partial college education isn't all that much better than just having a high school diploma in terms of lifetime earning power.

The situation also poses a threat to economy overall. This past week, the business group, the Committee for Economic Development, called for urgent measures to ramp up college completion and improve the performance of the higher education system overall.

As CED puts it, U.S. colleges and universities "are no longer producing enough graduates with the skills necessary to meet the demands of today's workplace." Unless the country acts, a new CED report warns, "there is little likelihood that America will have the quality and quantity of human capital to compete successfully in the global economy." CED called on business leaders to support state and corporate initiatives to help the roughly 37 million Americans who have some college credit, but have not completed a degree program.

Returning to get a degree after dropping out of college can be a daunting challenge. And while Shaq O'Neal deserves kudos for his perseverance, he would probably be the first to admit that his road was easy compared to most other college dropouts who want to go back to get their diplomas. In 2010, O'Neal's career earnings were estimated to be nearly $300 million. He wasn't worried about how to pay for tuition and books. He didn't have to stress out about the cost of childcare or how to put food on the table and pay the rent while simultaneously going to classes and studying.

Yet despite facing these kinds of challenges, nearly two-thirds of young people who have left college say they have given a lot of thought to going back to school. So as the robes and mortar boards are on display this month -- and as we celebrate the achievements of the new graduates -- it might be wise to think for a moment about how young people didn't make it and what that means for all of us.

The U.S. is graduating a smaller share of our young adults than some of our most successful economic rivals. That endangers the economic future of the people who don't graduate and it undercuts the country's economic vigor and potential overall. It's just not smart -- and it's certainly not fair -- to keep sweeping this problem under the rug.

Co-authored with Jean Johnson