- Since 2014, nearly 1 million students who took some college classes — but did not complete a degree — returned to their studies and obtained a credential, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
- The report, "Some College, No Degree," is the second in a series that explores what has happened to the roughly 36 million students who have left higher education without completing their degree.
- About 10% of these students are "potential completers," meaning they already have two years of academic work under their belts, the study's authors note. These students are good targets for college recruiters, but institutions need to tailor their offerings for them.
Since a similar study was conducted five years ago, 3.8 million stopped-out students have reenrolled in college. In that time, 940,000 students completed a credential and 1.1 million are still in programs.
Returning students tend to reenroll and finish their degree at a different, but still similar institution, from where they started, and often in the same state, the report notes.
Students who came back to college were more likely to do so at public universities than at private institutions. However, those stopping out from online colleges were more likely to return to them.
Community colleges awarded the largest share of credentials (43%) to returning learners who the center studied.
Most adult learners — beyond the typical 18 to 24 age range — who plan to return to college to earn a credential will do so to improve their career prospects, either by changing jobs or advancing in their current roles, according to a 2018 report from Public Agenda.
Adults with degrees are more likely to see the need for additional training throughout their careers than those without a credential, but not by much. A 2016 report from the Pew Research Center found that 63% of adults with at least a bachelor's degree felt that way, compared to 54% and 57% of adults with some college or an associate degree, respectively.
Oft-cited barriers around accessing an institution's student support services, transferring credits, securing financial aid and finding child care were likely reasons why 1 in 10 returning students who finished their credential did so at an online college, according to the report.
To better serve adult learners, the report recommends institutions forge strategic partnerships to help tailor online coursework and offer credit for prior work and military experience.
Some colleges are doing that already, as competition heightens from national online colleges such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University, and as more companies offer free degrees as an education benefit.
To do so effectively requires looking beyond course-specific pedagogy to ensure core services such as advising and career services are easily accessible online, advocates say.
Last year, the Online Learning Consortium issued a scorecard that colleges can use to make sure their programs and services are friendly to online learners.
In an op-ed for Education Dive in September, Marie Cini, president of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, noted that adult learners "are largely unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the idiosyncratic university environment, and who are juggling many responsibilities with their academic goals."