39M students have left college without earning a credential, report finds

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Dive Brief:

  • Over 39 million people in the U.S. attended college but left without a postsecondary credential as of July 2020, according to a report released Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  • That reflects net growth of 1.9 million people, or 5.3%, over 19 months ending in December 2018, when the research center last counted stopped-out students with no credential. The clearinghouse also identified 1.2 million more such students through data improvements and by newly counting students who last enrolled in a college receiving federal funding in a U.S. territory.
  • Altogether, the newly released total is 8.6% higher than the 36 million stopped-out students identified at the end of 2018. Even without the methodological changes, the population of students stopped out without a credential rose across the country. Forty-eight states and Washington, D.C. posted net growth in their stopped out, no credential populations.

Dive Insight:

Tuesday’s report looks at students who had at least one enrollment record at a U.S. college or university after Jan. 1, 1993. It defines students as stopped out with no credential if they had no enrollment records between January 2019 and July 31, 2020, and also had not received a degree or certificate as of the end of July 2020.

The report comes at a time of high concern about slipping college enrollment. Colleges enrolled about 1 million fewer undergraduates in fall 2021 than in fall 2019, the clearinghouse said earlier this year. Community colleges in particular have struggled.

Over the long term, higher ed is entering a period when the number of high school graduates — four-year colleges’ recruiting bread and butter — is projected to peak and then decline or plateau, depending on region. Projections play out differently for higher ed’s various niches, however. Demand to attend colleges across the country is expected to remain high or even increase for the most selective institutions.

Against that background, Tuesday’s report can be seen as an opportunity for colleges to tap into different potential student populations. It shows colleges have a chance to raise postsecondary attainment levels, the clearinghouse’s executive director, Doug Shapiro, said in a statement.

“At a time when most colleges are still reeling from historic enrollment declines during the pandemic, the continued health of higher education institutions, and their ability to meet the needs of future students, may depend on their success at re-engaging SCNC learners,” Shapiro said in a statement, using an acronym for students with some college, no credential.

But not all students are equally likely to reenroll — or earn a credential after doing so. Women reenrolled, remained enrolled and earned credentials in higher numbers than men, the report said. Reenrollment rates were also lower for older students than younger ones.

“This age threshold appears to be an important vector, because two-thirds of the enrolling SCNC students in the past academic year were under age 35,” Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the clearinghouse, said during a webinar Tuesday.

Most students were also younger than 35 when they stopped out, the report said. Most last attended a community college.

Black, Latinx and Native American former students were overrepresented among those with some college and no credential, relative to their share of undergraduates who are currently enrolled in college.

In the 2020-21 academic year, 944,200 students studied in the report reenrolled. Almost two-thirds of them, 62%, changed institutions.

Just over 60,400 such students earned a postsecondary credential for the first time, and nearly 532,000 persevered, meaning they remained enrolled after returning to classes the year before. Private nonprofit institutions posted the highest perseverance rate, 64.8%, while community colleges were lowest at 50.2%.

When documenting the number of stopped-out students by state, the report looked at where students last enrolled. Arizona saw the steepest increase in students who’d stopped out without credentials over the 19 months studied at 15%, or 86,400 students. California, Texas, New York and Illinois were collectively home to over a third of students with some college but no credentials, and Alaska had the highest rate of students falling into the category in comparison to current undergraduate enrollment.

Nebraska and Connecticut were the two states that didn’t see a rise in their number of students with some college and no credentials. But they trended virtually flat, with the number of students in the category falling by 250, or 0.1%, in Nebraska and by 1,200, or 0.3%, in Connecticut.

The clearinghouse measured students who stopped out of multi-state institutions and primarily online colleges separately from its state counts. This group of students grew quickly, rising by 13.7%, or 315,000 students.

The new data is also a reflection of low student success rates across U.S. colleges. Over a quarter of first-year students don’t return for their second years in college, the clearinghouse found last year. A much higher percentage of community college students, 41%, don’t return.

As of January, just 62.2% of students completed college within six years of enrolling.

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