Divided We Learn

More students are leaving college without a degree

More future jobs will require a college degree, yet more students are dropping out with no credential

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Not everyone who enrolls in college will leave with a certificate or degree, but the number of people who drop out or take a break is much higher than experts previously believed. In December 2013, there were 29 million people with some college education but no degree. That number jumped to 36 million by December of 2018, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

These data alarm the experts, considering all the messaging about the need for postsecondary education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2016 and 2026, employment will grow by 10 percent for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree – faster than the growth projected for all occupations. And even those with a certificate make more, on average, than those who have taken college classes but have not finished their education. College graduates are also more likely to share their wealth with charities and to volunteer, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

There are many reasons why the number of people who started college but didn’t finish rose.

For one, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has better data now, said Mikyung Ryu, the center’s director of research publications. In the last five years, some institutions have gotten better at submitting student data, allowing the center to improve its ability to track students and analyze outcome measures.

Plus, the job market plays a role in the increase. “Economic motivation is a factor,” Ryu said. Between 2014 and 2018, the economy improved as it recovered from the Great Recession, and that could have pushed some students to leave school for a strong job market.

Related: Universities that are recruiting older students often leave them floundering

Even with strong job opportunities though, people want higher education. Over the last 10 to 15 years, “more people are coming in,” she said. But the problem is “more people are not finishing,” said Ryu.

For many of these students, life gets in the way, higher education experts say. Insufficient housing or inadequate childcare can derail students who want to finish their education, and many of the institutions they attend my not be equipped to meet all of their needs.

“Community colleges really do serve the bulk of these students,” said Leanne Davis, an assistant director of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing access to college. “Community colleges have a broad access mission, often with limited resources and funding.”

About two-thirds of students with some college but no degree started at a community college or were last enrolled at a community college, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report. The average time out of school for all former students was 10 years.

The report breaks down, state-by-state, the number of students who have yet to finish college, as well as those who did finish since the center’s last report.

Of the 29 million who had not finished as of December 2013, 940,000 had completed their credential or degree by December 2018. People who drop out and then return to school are usually written off when measuring completion rates, Ryu said.

“These are really an invisible group of students,” she said.

The report offers some insights into what might be done to improve this number. It outlines where returning students were likely to re-enroll, what kind of schools they were drawn to, what they studied, their race and their challenges, which include financial aid and the timing of classes.

“Barriers to completion disproportionately impact low-income students, students of color, students who are parents,” Davis said. “And it’s really important as we re-engage the students, to make sure that the path to completion is real for all students.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Higher Education newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Thursday. Subscribe today!

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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