36.8 Million Adults Have Attended College Without Earning A Degree

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The number of Americans aged 18 to 64 who have attended college but not earned any post-secondary credential now stands at 36.8 million. That’s a 2.9% increase between January 2021 and July 2022, the result of roughly 2.3 million more students dropping out during that period.

That’s the top line finding of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest Some College, No Credential Student Outcomes: Annual Progress Report. Of that total number, relatively few “some college, no credential” (SCNC) adults are re-enrolling in higher education. More than 943,000 SCNC adults re-enrolled in the 2022-23 academic year. While that number is about 78,000 more re-enrollers than in the prior year, it still represents only 2.6% of the SCNC population. As a result, most SCNC adults remain out of college with no degree or other postsecondary credential to their credit.

“It is encouraging to see an increase in the number of students re-enrolling this year, largely reversing the decline that we observed in last year’s report,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in a press release. “Higher education regularly generates more students leaving school without a credential than returning to finish one, however, which is both a persistent challenge and a continuing opportunity for the system to improve and grow.”

The report divides the SCNC population into three groups:

Potential completers: Students with at least two years of full-time equivalent enrollment in the last decade. They comprise 7.7% (2,840,000 individuals) of the SCNC population. The combination of credits previously earned and the relative recency of their prior enrollment makes them the most likely to be able to complete a degree or other credential.

Recent stopouts: Students who stopped out between January 2021 and July 2022. They make up 6.2% of the SCNC population (2,267,000 individuals).

Existing SCNC: Students who had previously stopped out of college and neither re-enrolled nor earned a degree or other credential between July 2021 and July 2022.

This year’s report differed from the center’s SCNC estimates prior years because it counted only working-age adults, defined as those people between ages 18 and 65.

Demographic Differences

The SCNC population is less white and more male than the overall undergraduate population. For example, Hispanic students were 24.4% of the SCNC population as of July 2022 compared to 21.5% of all enrolled undergrads in the 2022-23 academic year. Black students accounted for 14.0% of all undergraduates, but they were 19.1% of the SCNC population.

More than half (51.8%) of SCNC students are men; by contrast, men comprise only 42.3% of all undergraduates.

State Differences

Most states have set strategic education attainment goals for how many of their citizens will have earned a postsecondary credential by a certain date, and targeting former students who have dropped out remains a priority for them. This year, the report found that the number of SCNC students increased in every state, except Alaska, which held flat.

According to Shapiro, who briefed reporters about the report on Wednesday, Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida saw their SCNC numbers grow by more than 3.5%. Two other larger states — Illinois and Michigan — had increases of 1.2% and 1.8%, respectively.

Where Do SCNC Students Re-Enroll?

SCNC student re-enrollment increased 9.1% in the 2022-23 academic year. Among SCNC students who re-enrolled, 63% did so at a different institution than they previously attended, and among those changing institutions, two-thirds switched to a different higher education sector altogether.

For example, of those students who started at a public four-year university, 43.3% of those who re-enrolled did so at a public two-year college. And among those starting at a private, nonprofit institution, 45.9% of those returnees re-enrolled at a public two-year school. Overall, of those SCNC who re-enrolled, more than half (51.9%) are pursuing Associate Degrees at their new institution.

Primarily online institutions also are an increasingly popular destination for students who switch schools at re-enrollment, although students re-enrolling at primarily online schools have the lowest credential earning rate of all sectors after two years.

Credential Completion

Of the 864,800 students who re-enrolled in the 2021-22 academic year, 39,900 (4.6%) earned a credential that year. Of the remaining re-enrollees, 467,000 (56.6%) persevered into the 2022-23 academic year. An additional 80,010 earned a first credential in 2022-2023. Among those, 38.5% were Associate degrees, 34.7% were undergraduate certificates, 21.7% were Bachelor’s degrees and 5.6% were for other credentials.

In 2022-23, 54,794 SCNC students earned a first credential. Most of those were earned by students who had re-enrolled that year, but others had credentials awarded as a result of reverse transfer or having a hold on their record cleared. Among the completers, shorter-term credentials were most popular; 43.3% received an undergraduate certificate, 30.4% an Associate’s degree, 23.3% a Bachelor’s degree, and 3.1% other credentials.

Potential Completers have a substantial advantage when it comes to re-enrollment and credential completion. Among the 179,000 potential completers who re-enrolled in 2021-22, 14,700 earned a credential in the first year, more than twice the rate of their non-potential completer SCNC peers (8.2% vs. 3.7%). Add to that an additional 23,000 potential completers who earned a credential in their second year of re-enrollment, and you have a combined two-year credential earning rate of 21.1% compared to 12.0% for non-potential completer re-enrollees.

Recent Stopouts, however, don’t see similar completion advantages. Even though recent stopouts re-enrolled at five times the rate of the existing SCNC population, their advantage in two-year credential earning is slight (14.2% for recent stopouts vs. 13.7% for existing SCNC population.

Implications

With about 18% of working age, U.S. adults having completed some college but without a credential to show for it, re-engaging SCNC students can increase the educational attainment of the workforce generally at the same time it reduces disparities in who completes a college education.

The potential completer population holds special promise for institutions seeking to re-engage former students, given their greater likelihood of completing a credential within two years of re-enrollment compared to other SCNC individuals.

Several states have introduced re-enrollment or degree recovery efforts. They’ve generally had some success in drawing adults back to school, but a greater impact might be achieved if they focused more on short-term credentials including certificates and Associates degrees which the data show are the most popular choices for returning students.

About the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

The NSCRC is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. It collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations to gather accurate longitudinal data that can be used to guide educational policy decisions. NSCRC analyzes data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represented 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollment in Title IV degree-granting U.S. higher education institutions, as of 2020. This SCNC report was produced with support from the Lumina Foundation.

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