Some College and No Degree

“Over the past 20 years, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college and left without receiving a degree or certificate” is the headline for a recent Strada, Gallup and Lumina Study report. Another recent National Student Clearinghouse report provided an overview of this population by state, noting that a nuanced review of the data is required before making conclusions and recommendations. The researchers pulled Strada-Gallup survey data from more than 42,000 individuals who did not complete college to complement the Clearinghouse study and shared the following key findings:

  • The most common reason for drop-outs was students finding difficulty balancing school and work simultaneously.
  • The factors most influencing this population to re-enroll are affordability, schedule flexibility, and guaranteed employment connected to further education.
  • Those dropping out rated the quality of their academic and career advising lower than peers completing college.
  • Only 19% reported they are disinterested in continuing their education. Cost and time are the issues preventing reenrollment.
  • If they reenroll in additional courses or training, they are most likely to do so via an employer. Community colleges are their most likely alternative choice.
  • Younger adults, people of color, and those working in certain occupations such as food preparation are more likely to say they will enroll in additional courses or training.

Notable among the characteristics of this sample population was that half had attended multiple colleges (similar to the overall population) with approximately half attending community colleges (slightly more than the overall population) and half attending four-year institutions. The top three factors impacting self-reported likelihood to resume college courses or training were: free community college tuition (63%); courses and training that fits their schedule (61%); and guaranteed employment outcome — a job placement or wage increase (59%). According to the report, breaking out these factors by respondent occupation reveals interesting findings:

  • Free community college is most often cited by those in the office and administrative, food preparation, and transportation occupations.
  • Those working in sales, management, and construction emphasized schedule flexibility as their top preference.
  • Guaranteed employment outcomes was cited most by those working in healthcare and manufacturing.

As one who leads an educational institution serving primarily adult learners, I was unsurprised by these conclusions. The explanations from students as to why they dropped out can be accurately summarized as “life sometimes gets in the way for working adult students.” The report concludes that there are three key needs for adult students if they are to reenroll in college: education must be affordable; it must accommodate the rest of their lives, including work and family; and there must be a clear career benefit before they invest the time and money in additional education. Our institution’s mission is centered on affordability, access and career relevancy — characteristics that have gone a long way to effectively serving our working adult students. If more of the 31 million are to reenroll in college, more institutions will need to similarly embrace these core requirements.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence