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A Look at the Some College, No Degree Population

By Rebecca L. Weber

New study finds that students who enroll multiple times have a tougher time completing.

Every college course students pass get them that much closer to a degree. But completion can be hardest for those who stop out.

New research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on enrollment data at two- and four-year institutions finds that between 1993 and 2013, some 31 million students attended college but left before receiving a degree or certificate.

The report, Some College, No Degree: A National View of Students with Some College Enrollment, but No Completion, focuses on students with more than one enrollment record who did not complete a degree. “These multiple-term enrollees proved to have diverse pathways through higher education, many extending over years and across institutions, that may offer insights for educators and policy makers who, with better understandings of these students, may be able to improve programs and services to better meet their needs in the future,” according to the report.

More than half of multiple-term students (56 percent) were enrolled exclusively at two-year colleges, and 16 percent attended classes at both two- and four-year institutions, the report states.

For more insight on these current findings and their implications — additional data will be released in the coming months — we spoke with Dave Jarrat, who handles media, partner, and industry relations at this study’s organizer, InsideTrack.

This is a largely overlooked subset of students. What was the motivation behind this study?

Jarrat: The data that’s recorded at the federal level is primarily for first-time students. If you look at who the student body actually is, you only have about 15 percent of students who are truly traditional — 18 years old and going to college for the first time, straight out of high school, financially dependent on their parents.

We work with a lot of institutions that are serving what we call post-traditional students. They are having trouble benchmarking themselves against their peers. They know how well they’re doing against their prior performance.

What surprising findings came out of the data?

Jarrat: There are radically different outcomes in different states. I’d love to see why that’s the case. [In] states with similar demographics, roughly — California, New York, Texas, Florida — California is one of the worst; Texas is one of the best. Those would be great questions to dig into.

How can the findings better inform outreach, recruitment and completion rates at community colleges?

Jarrat: The first question I’d ask any administrator is what are the completion rates for non-first-time students at your institution? If you don’t know that number, go find out, because ultimately, you don’t fix what you don’t measure. This data should be helpful for them in terms of benchmarking purposes. We’ve only released a portion of the data so far.

We’ve sliced data by gender, by previous enrollment institution type, by current enrollment institution type, by age, geography — a variety of different factors. They will be able to look at that data and say, “Our student population is most like this.” Or, “A sub-segment of our student population should be completing at this rate.”

The third finding, which is particularly important for community college leaders, is that returning students who are pursuing an associate degree had roughly equivalent basic completion if they were going full time or if they were mixing their enrollment level — some full time and some part time.

Students who are pursuing an associate degree who attend … part time and full time are actually far less likely to drop out. I think that’s important, because there are initiatives in a number of states — they’re often called “15 to Finish” — that are basically mandatory requirements to take 15 credits per semester. For many students, particularly returning students attending two-year institutions, that may not be the best prescription.

Has your college mandated 15-credit semesters? Don’t miss what Davis Jenkins and Serena Klempin of the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, recently shared about their research into 15-credit enrollment strategies.  

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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