39 million students have left college without earning a degree, report shows

The number of “some college, no credential” (SCNC) students in the U.S.—those who attended college but left without a post-secondary degree—rose 8.2% from 36 million in December 2018 to 39 million as of July 2020, according to data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC). During that time, 48 states and Washington, D.C., saw a net growth in the number of stopped-out students, Higher Ed Dive reports.

The latest NSCRC numbers highlight groups that colleges and universities can engage to boost college completion rates, including students of color and adult learners. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are overrepresented among SCNC students, making up 44.2% of the SCNC population but 35.2% of college students. In contrast, white students make up 45.3% of SCNC students but 51.8% of undergraduate students overall.

Of the 39 million SCNC students in the country, 58.2% attended community college before stopping out, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. More than half of SCNC students are adult learners.

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Re-engaging SCNC students

Of the nation’s 39 million SCNC students, 944,200 students ages 18 to 64 returned to college in the 2020-21 academic year. Within that group, women outnumbered men 59% to 38%. Furthermore, 38.5% of students who re-enrolled during the 2020-21 academic year were those who previously attended community college and re-enrolled in community college—the most common pathway for SCNC re-enrollees.

In a Medium post, Courney Brown, Lumina Foundation’s vice president of strategic impact, suggests five steps colleges and universities can take to reach out to the SCNC community and address barriers to college completion: 

  1. Provide funding and emergency aid. A recent survey by Gallup and Lumina Foundation found that 85% of students who stopped out of a certificate or degree program have considered re-enrolling, but they reported college cost as a key reason they remained unenrolled. 
  2. Offer affordable, readily available mental health services. In the same survey, emotional stress was the most-cited reason why students considered leaving college. 
  3. Create clear academic pathways for returning students. Brown suggests colleges provide returning students—who may be balancing jobs, families, and other obligations with coursework—with flexible scheduling, easier credit transfers, and clear pathways to college completion.
  4. Eliminate procedural barriers that derail students from graduating. The Institute for Higher Education Policy’s (IHEP) three-year initiative Degrees When Due identified outdated course requirements, graduation applications, and financial holds from library or parking fees as the most common academic policies that prevent degree attainment, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
  5. Support returning students of color. Mentorship and academic and career counseling can help SCNC students from historically underrepresented groups realize success.
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