Study finds millions start college but do not earn degree

IU’s Project on Academic Success teams with National Student Clearinghouse to study college completion

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in conjunction with the Project on Academic Success at Indiana University finds that 31 million students who enrolled in college during the past 20 years left without receiving a degree or certificate.

The latest Clearinghouse Signature Report, "Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion," found that nearly a third of these 31 million students had only a minimal interaction with the higher education system, having enrolled for just a single term at a single institution, and 4 million of them made at least two years’ progress before leaving college.

“Students with some college, but no degree, are a key group for the national college completion agenda,” said Mary Ziskin, former senior associate director at the Project on Academic Success. “The report allows us to begin to see this group in a more differentiated way and will help to show potential ways forward, as policy makers, institutions and researchers think about more responsive ways to serve this population. Increasing understanding in this area is an important piece of the puzzle for increasing college attainment nationally.”

The report comes from enrollments of students from the past 20 years across nearly all U.S. degree-granting institutions. The national report is based on student-level data made available to the Clearinghouse by its more than 3,600 participating colleges and universities, which tracks 96 percent of college enrollments nationwide.

Other Project on Academic Success co-authors are research associates Xin Yuan, Autumn Harrell and Justin Wild. The lead authors from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center are executive research director Doug Shapiro and associate director Afet Dundar.

The former students with no degree or certificate who have completed the equivalent of two or more full academic years of work are defined in the Clearinghouse report as “potential completers.” The report recommends college and universities recruit some of these 4 million students to take final steps toward their degrees. Most of the potential completers are 24 to 29 years old and have been out of the postsecondary education system for two to six years. The report also identified a second, broader population of potential re-entry students with two or more enrollment records, called “multiple-term enrollees.”

Additional findings include:

  • More than one-third (34.9 percent) of multiple-term enrollees began and ended their postsecondary enrollments within a single year. More than half (56.3 percent) attended only two-year institutions, while 16.6 percent attended both two- and four-year institutions.
  • Gender distribution across both groups (potential completers and multiple-term enrollees) was very similar, with women making up slightly more than half of the students in each group.
  • About three-quarters of potential completers (74.3 percent) were younger than 30 at the time of their last enrollment; 58.4 percent were still under 30 as of December 2013. Among potential completers, men are younger than women: 64 percent of the men were under 30 in December 2013, compared to 54 percent of the women.
  • For 17 percent of potential completers, seven or more years have elapsed since their last enrollment. Among those older than 30, the figure is 25 percent.
  • Most potential completers only attended one institution (45.6 percent) or two (36 percent).
  • One-third of potential completers were enrolled over two to three years, and 71 percent of them had no stop-outs. For another one-third, their enrollments spanned four to six years and included one stop-out (41 percent) or more (25 percent).
  • Overall, potential completers were much more likely to have stopped out (68 percent) than were completers (40 percent).
  • Even though they didn’t finish, potential completers spent more time pursuing a degree than did completers. In general, the total time in postsecondary education institutions (including stop-outs) was longer for potential completers than for completers. Most completers (81.2 percent) had a length of pathway of six years or less compared to 64.4 percent of potential completers.

“As more students choose less-traditional paths to a college degree, the population of those who stop out along the way stands to grow,” Shapiro said. “Many college and national organizations are interested in drawing this population back to complete their degrees, but research to inform these efforts is still emerging. Our report is designed to help the education community see the diversity as well as similarities in education pathways of this population of former students.”

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The research center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the research center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Project on Academic Success is part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University and conducts practice- and policy-oriented research on opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and the multiple pathways that 21st-century students follow toward postsecondary academic success. The center's team brings to its research efforts a diversity of specialties including student financial aid policy, college choice, enrollment management, and racial and gender equity. The Project on Academic Success has published numerous reports regarding student persistence trends, the effects of debt on student success outcomes and institutional practices enhancing student academic success.