3.5 million stopped-out college students identified as ‘potential completers’

Among the 36 million Americans with some college credit but no degree or certificate, about 10 percent have completed two years’ worth of college credit, indicating their strong potential to eventually earn a credential, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The study provides valuable insights on these 3.5 million “potential completers” and their educational trajectories—data that may help steer colleges working to increase enrollment of nontraditional students and policymakers working to hit postsecondary-attainment targets, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

Characteristics of potential completers

National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group that provides education and workforce data, analyzed information accounting for 97 percent of American post-secondary enrollments since 1993. Signaling where college recruiters may want to focus their attention, the report looks at the types of students who make up the potential-completer population. Researchers found, for instance, that 48 percent of potential completers were last enrolled at two-year public colleges; few attended private colleges. Forty-seven percent left college at age 23 or younger, and 58 percent are still below age 30.

Related: Colleges in 20 states sign on to re-engage ‘stopped-out’ students >

The report also highlights a group of 940,000 students who had been flagged as potential completers in a similar 2014 report and went on to finish their degrees. These students were most likely to finish their degree in the same state where they began their education: close to two-thirds of those who re-enrolled and completed their degrees between 2014 and 2018 did so in the same state, through the same type of institution. Many did so through local community colleges or through online degree programs.

Completers also tended to return to their previous institution and finish in less than two years without stopping out. In addition, the report notes, more than a million other students who had been flagged as potential completers in 2014 had re-enrolled (but not yet graduated), “for a combined success and progress rate of 54 percent among re-enrollees.” 

“This is a population that’s been written off,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “Imagine what we could do as a nation if we really focused on these students.”

Insights for state policymakers

Shapiro said completers and potential completers are a potential “windfall to the higher education system in this country” in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman. Looking specifically at college-going trajectories in Texas, the report found that 280,000 Texan students re-enrolled between 2014 and 2018, and 71,600 completed undergraduate degrees.

Ashley Williams, a policy analyst with the Austin, Texas-based think tank Center on Public Policy Priorities, said Texas has “a lot of ground to cover” but said the findings signal “an opportunity to reach out to and invest in folks who have started on their path to a post-secondary credential but for various reasons have not made it to that degree.” She called for greater state investment in higher education, which has declined in recent years.

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