About one in six U.S. adults went to college and left before earning a credential. New data details the paths they take and what might be able to help them finish.

What Happens to People With Some College and No Degree

There are 36 million Americans who have gone to college but left without earning a degree.

That’s about one in six U.S. adults — and it’s a population that’s been gaining more attention from policy makers, researchers, and college leaders.

There’s a lot at stake for the people who fall into this group. They are more likely to default on student loans than other borrowers, and some studies have shown that they are less likely to have good jobs than people who earn high-school diplomas but never go to college at all.

To get a better sense of how to meet the needs of these millions of Americans, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center this week released a report that details who they are and the paths they have taken.

The typical American with some college and no degree, according to the report, is 39, started studying at a community college, attended for less than two years, and hasn’t been enrolled in college for a decade.

A Portrait of Completers

The National Student Clearinghouse also looked at what happened to the 29 million people it identified five years ago as having some college and no degree. Of that group, 940,000 have since completed a college credential of some kind. (And another 1.1 million are still re-enrolled in college.)

Here are three key things researchers learned about those students who did go back and finish:

They were unlikely to re-enroll where they previously went to college. But they mostly completed their programs in the same state where they had last enrolled.

One-quarter of the bachelor’s degree earners and almost one-third of the associate degree earners among this group of completers were African-American or Hispanic. Researchers and policy analysts saw this as a promising sign for how focusing programs and policies on people with some college and no degree could help close education gaps among racial groups.

They tend to choose popular college majors like business management and liberal arts, not programs in high-demand fields like health.

At first glance, this may not be what you’d expect. Adults aren’t going to return to college without clear reasons — and it would seem logical that they would pick a field of study that provided clear potential for increased earning power.

But policy analysts and higher-education leaders who discussed this new research at an event this week said returning adults are going to pick the path of least resistance to a degree. Often, they come back to college having previously earned credits in a broad range of areas. Or they were taking courses toward general transfer-oriented degrees at a community college.

That means it’s faster for them to get to a degree in a broader field like business management or general studies than it would be to start in on a program like nursing, which comes with a lot of specific prerequisites.

Rick Torres, president and CEO of the National Student Clearinghouse, says they wanted this new research report to help form a more complete national narrative about the paths students take to college and what can help more people complete them.

“What is clear,” he says, “is that most of the journeys are nontraditional.”

— Sara Hebel

A New Open Campus Newsletter

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Karin has been reporting about the internationalization of American higher education for well over a decade (mostly for The Chronicle of Higher Education). The stories she’s written about students’ fears, parents’ dreams, and campuses’ dilemmas — reported from around the globe: places like China, India, and East Lansing, Mich. — stand out for their depth of understanding and their unmistakable humanity.

For years Karin has made us smarter about these issues, and she has made us care about the people and communities at the center. Enjoy latitude(s), and let Karin know what you think. Drop her a note at latitudesnews@gmail.com. Or find her on Twitter.


Out of the fields: In a North Carolina county where few Latino parents have diplomas, their kids are aiming for college

Latinos have some of the lowest education levels in the country, but poverty and immigration fears aren’t holding back some students and schools in NC. (EdNC)

‘Toxic’ lab lasted for years. UW-Madison had little idea until a student died by suicide

John Brady faced a stressful work environment under an engineering professor before taking his own life. (Wisconsin State Journal)

How Louisiana’s richest students go to college on the backs of the poor

Louisiana’s TOPS scholarship program and state budget formulas handicap less-advantaged students and colleges, and it’s a national trend. (Hechinger Report)

Recommendation Corner

This week we have suggestions from the three 20-somethings who joined us for dinner on Sunday night. They told us what we should be watching on YouTube.

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