Some college, no degree update: an enormous swath of higher education

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What do we know about people who take some college classes, then leave the institution without any kind of degree?

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center just published new data on people who have some college, no credential (SCNC).  It’s vital information for American higher ed.  Here I’ll follow my usual practice of identifying what I see as key findings, then will add some reflections.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoi

To start with, the number of people who once enrolled but never got a degree is immense: “today’s SCNC population is 41.9 million students, 36.8 million of whom are between the ages of 18 and 64.”  That’s a nearly 3% increase since last year.  For broader context, “[t]his represents 18.1 percent of the total United States population between 18 and 64 years old”  or about 13% of everyone who lives in America.

In demographic terms, SCNC people are spread across all ages:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree by age_2024 June

There is a skew older in terms of increase: “the rate of growth was considerably smaller for students currently aged 25-34 (+15,100, +0.1%) compared to the rest of the population, which saw increases ranging from 2.9 percent (for those aged 35-44) to 5.1 percent (for those aged 45-64). ”

More men than women are stopping out.  The racial mix is more nonwhite than the rest of the student population: “Hispanic, Black, and Native American students are disproportionately represented among the overall SCNC population.”

There are strong differences by institutional type.  For-profits saw the largest share of stop-out increases by far:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree by institutional type_2024 June

…followed by primarily online institutions (think Western Governors, SNHU, Liberty, etc.). Those are more likely to lose students, but at the same time these institutions are also more likely to attract them.

Where do students enroll when they return to higher education after an absence?  Here community colleges play the biggest role:

National Clearinghouse some college no degree_returning students by institutional type_2024 June

And note that most students don’t return to the school they left: “In the 2022-23 academic year, nearly 63 percent of re-enrollees attended a different institution than the one they were previously enrolled at.”  Setting aside externalities (see below) this is not a good commentary on the original campuses.

The number of re-enrollees is tiny:

In the 2022-23 academic year, more than 943,000 SCNC students re-enrolled in higher education and 134,800 formerly SCNC students earned their first credential. This is positive news for these students. However, our report suggests there is still much more work to be done. These students represent only a small fraction of the 36.8 million adults who make up the working age SCNC population.

So what does this mean for higher education and its future?

On the face of it, the phenomenon of tens of millions of people not attaining certifications looks like a massive failure for American colleges and universities.  We often celebrate degrees for a range of reasons, including their powerful meaning on the job market. To the extent that we see academics as responsible for students’ educational experiences, this appears to be a clear assessment that American higher ed is doing wrong by a *lot* of students.

Yes, we can identify a positive or neutral aspect to this data. For some people, taking some classes without winning a degree is sufficient for their purposes.  As an example, think of a person who just wants to improve their French language or computer coding skills; having done so, they see no need to go further. I think we are satisfied with that kind of limited continuing education.  There are also cases whereby someone leaves higher education for unrelated reasons: a family crisis, a move out of the area, a new job. These external reasons can leave us off the hook.

Yet how many students exit our campuses short of a degree because of the way we structure their experience?  There are so many points of failure: advising, in-class support, sheer bureaucracy, the cost and debt.

Moreover, American higher ed inherits two commitments to seeing students through more classes and certification.  First is the idea of “college for all,” the concept that the more post-secondary experience we have, the better everyone is.  Second is the economic sustainability issue. Since we effectively privatized colleges and universities, enrollment is key to keeping these institutions open. Setting aside the neutral and positive reasons noted above, this population nearly 42 million strong appears to be a huge recruitment target.  As the Clearinghouse puts it,  “Re-engaging those who stop out remains a persistent challenge and a priority for the forty states that have set ambitious postsecondary attainment goals.”

Since nearly two-thirds of students who left one school return to classes at a different institution, there’s clearly an opportunity for campuses to recruit from others.  Inside Higher Ed’s article on the report focuses on this aspect.  Another article thinks this is a great opportunity for community colleges.

I would add to this: to the extent an institution is concerned about education more nonwhite people and/or men, recruiting from the SCNC population is aligned with that goal. It might also be an ethical imperative.  As the report notes, “States and institutions could look to the Potential Completer population to help reach their re-engagement and attainment goals in equitable ways. Hispanic, Black, and Native students are well-represented in this group, which is almost twice as likely to complete credentials within two years of re-enrollment as their other SCNC peers.”

The Clearinghouse urges academics to take this problem seriously, and I can conclude with their advice:

Re-engaging with the SCNC population has broad benefits for states, institutions, and students. For states, seeing additional SCNC students earn credentials can help to increase the attainment levels of their workforces and make their economies more competitive. For institutions, SCNC students can help address enrollment shortfalls amid a shifting demographic landscape. Perhaps more importantly, helping SCNC students through completing their first credentials can advance institutional missions to drive social mobility for students of all backgrounds.

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