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A woman and man, older than traditional college students, laugh while carrying books and wearing backpacks.

The latest report on students with some college credits but no credential showed some troubling trends.

Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

The number of people who attended some college but never earned a credential is growing across the country, according to the latest Some College, No Credential” report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The new progress report, released today, found that the population of learners who stopped out of college without completing rose 3.6 percent between July 2020 and July 2021. That’s an additional 1.4 million people on top of the 39 million reported last year. Academic outcomes for these students also worsened. The number who returned to college fell 8.4 percent, those who earned a credential within a year after re-enrolling dropped 11.8 percent and those who continued on to a second year of college after re-enrolling fell 4.3 percent.

Racial minorities were overrepresented in the “some college, no credential” population, with Latino and Black students making up 43 percent of those who stopped out in the last decade, compared to about 35 percent of undergraduates over all. The group also has a slightly higher percentage of women than men. Community colleges were most often the last institutions where these students enrolled, re-enrolled or ultimately got their credentials. And most students, 61.2 percent, went somewhere other than their initial institution.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said in a media briefing on Monday that these students struggled to enroll and stay enrolled, like many undergraduates during this time period, because of challenges posed by the pandemic, high college prices and the lure of decent-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a certificate or degree in the current labor market.

He noted that as colleges and universities struggle with enrollment declines, “this population represents a certain level of opportunity for states and institutions that are looking to increase college enrollment and college attainment rates and particularly to reduce equity gaps among college degree recipients.”

“This population is increasing, whereas in most states and regions, the population of traditional high school graduates, who we normally think of as the source of college enrollments, is declining and will continue to decline just based on the demographics in the next few years,” he added.

Terah Crews, CEO of ReUp Education, a company focused on re-enrolling adult learners, said she wasn’t surprised by the report’s findings.

“Unfortunately, this group is hard to reach,” she said. “They’re hard to enroll. They’re hard to support to complete … Once they’re a year out to five to 15 to 20 years out, then it gets much harder.”

Meanwhile, “most of higher education wasn’t designed for this population,” she added. “Everything down to … the wording on an admissions page can be off-putting to a learner.”

On a hopeful note, the report found a couple of subgroups with higher re-enrollment and completion rates than their peers. Students who completed two years of college before leaving, called “potential completers” in the report, and recent stop-outs, who left college since the last report in May 2022, were more likely to return to college and earn a credential within a year of re-enrolling. These students had re-enrollment rates three to four times higher than the national average, respectively.

These subsets also skew younger than their peers. Most “some college, no credential” students were younger than 35 when they were last enrolled, though their portion of the population dropped slightly from 34 percent to 33 percent. But almost a quarter of potential completers were under the age of 20, and 55.6 percent of recent stop-outs were in their early 20s.

Shapiro noted that younger students are more likely to re-enroll than their older counterparts.

Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications at the research center, highlighted that students with some credits but no credential have different patterns than other adult learners when they do return to college. They tend to stay at the institution where they re-enroll until they graduate, so they’re less likely to lose credits transferring between colleges and tend to graduate faster, she said. For example, among potential completers who earned a credential within a year of re-enrolling, the median time to completion was only about four months.

“The overall success and progress rate is almost equivalent to some of those high-potential traditional undergraduate students,” she said.

Unfortunately, this group is hard to reach. They’re hard to enroll. They’re hard to support to complete … Once they’re a year out to five to 15 to 20 years out, then it gets much harder.”

Terah Crews, ReUp

Kai Drekmeier, chief development officer and co-founder of InsideTrack, a student coaching company that helps colleges re-enroll students, said student coaches have watched some of these trends play out on the ground. For example, they’ve learned to first focus their outreach on potential completers and recent stop-outs because doing so yields better returns. InsideTrack also takes an “institution-agnostic” approach to re-engaging former students with some credits given how many choose different colleges than the one they initially attended.

Drekmeier said colleges and universities can help these students not just re-enroll but persist by ensuring they have key supports when they get there, such as a single contact on campus they can reach out to with questions and “working learner–friendly” services like childcare and competency-based education and credit for prior learning options. The company also encourages colleges to waive unpaid fees and introspect about other barriers that might be getting in the way of students graduating.

He believes these moves are in their interest and in the interests of states as they need “more and more people with the skills for today and tomorrow’s workforce.”

Amanda Janice Roberson, senior director of strategic engagement, planning and operations at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said federal and state policy makers also have a role to play in re-engaging adult learners for that reason. Federal policy makers, for example, could double the Pell Grant to improve support for some of these students, and states can help collect data to identify stopped-out students and assess the success of re-enrollment campaigns, as well as provide more need-based aid.

“There’s really the shared responsibility across the federal, state and institution for better supporting these stopped-out students to re-engage them in postsecondary education,” she said.

Crews said she’s seen increased interest among state and college leaders in re-enrollment campaigns as they grapple with enrollment losses and the impending demographic cliff. She believes the data trends regarding re-enrollment may look more hopeful in the future.

“Almost all of higher education right now is trying to figure out how to serve this population,” she said. “I do think we’re going to see major strides over the next decade.”

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