Home Student Retention Why Aren’t More Adults Finishing [Community] College?
Why Aren’t More Adults Finishing [Community] College?

Why Aren’t More Adults Finishing [Community] College?


In an article published by Brookings, co-authors Kelli Bird, Ben Castleman, Brett Fischer, and Benjamin Skinner write about their research investigating the labor market trajectories of adults who earned some college credits but not a degree or certificate from the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). The students included in the study left VCCS between the summer of 2009 and spring of 2014 and did not re-enroll or attend another institution for at least three years.

Some of the key insights from the research indicate:

  • Many adults exit college with some credits, but most of them may not be academically ready to succeed in postsecondary education. Approximately 200,000 students in the dataset had earned at least some college credits. Less than one in seven earned at least 30 college credits (approximately one year of a two-year degree) and maintained a GPA of 2.0 or higher.
  • After leaving college without a credential, students with substantial academic progress typically experience steadily increasing wages. For the adults who earned at least 30 college credits and maintained a GPA of 2.0 or higher, the average student earned approximately $5,000 per quarter in the year before they stopped out from college. Five years later, average quarterly earnings nearly doubled.
  • Most students with substantial academic progress who left college without a credential were in a field of study without significant earnings premia associated with completion. There were 19 fields of study with enrollments large enough that the researchers could examine earnings differentials between students who graduated and those who did not graduate. Only six of those fields had significantly higher earnings for graduates versus those who did not graduate.

Some of the conclusions of the researchers from the insights listed above are:

  • The majority of adults with some college credits, no credentials and less than 30 credit hours (six out of seven) would have multiple (three or more) semesters of future enrollments ahead of them to graduate and some would struggle to maintain satisfactory academic progress to advance.
  • The income progression post stop-out for the adults with 30 or more credits and a 2.0 GPA is so significant (doubled over five years) that this may explain why many of them have not rushed back to complete college.
  • With less than a third (6 of 19) fields of study providing significantly higher earnings for graduates versus stop-outs, many of the adults who left college may have reasonably assumed that continuing in their program progression was not worth the investment in time or money.

The authors point out that percentage of adults with some credits who have stopped out but might be interested in reenrolling in community college is lower than the assumptions made by policymakers. Of the 26,000 adults in the dataset who made substantial academic progress before stopping out, fewer than 1,000 (approximately 3 percent) could easily reenroll in fields of study that provided a sizable earnings premium.

In order to increase reenrollment and completion among adults who have stopped out of college, a comprehensive and resource-intensive strategy is required according to the authors. Many adults who left college performed poorly in the term immediately preceding their departure. Institutions that invest in resources to identify students whose performance suddenly declines could keep more adults on track for completion (a counter argument to this is that their performance may have declined because they knew they were leaving and didn’t work as hard or complete their courses). The authors recommend using existing evidence-based approaches to increasing completion including intensive coaching and advising, structured learning, and increased grant assistance to improve affordability.

I did not read the original version of this article that was published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a journal published by Sage Journals. However, the sections selected for the Brookings publication suggest to me that the authors took the time to research the data and potential underlying reasons more carefully than other researchers who pour through unscrubbed and unexplained data from the College Scorecard and postulate poor outcomes based on their comparison of a non-selective, open enrollment institution to a highly selective institution.

There are several characteristics of the adult students included in this study that bear mentioning. All of them attended community colleges, earned a few credits, but did not complete a degree or certificate. Time and money are important to them. One of the primary reasons that students choose a community college is its relative affordability compared to other colleges. A student may drop out because he/she doesn’t have the money to continue their studies. As the authors point out, a student may also drop out because he/she perceives that the degree they are pursuing does not provide the economic reward for the time it takes them to complete it.

Is the solution to convince students to enroll in the degree programs that provide an income differential? I’m not sure. It would be nice to know what the six degree programs are that provided the positive income differential. Many students may not have the academic qualifications for those degrees or the interest in them. It would be useful to know if some of the 13 degrees that did not provide a differential were AS or AAS degrees versus AA degrees since AS and AAS degrees offer courses that are not always easily transferred to other degree programs.

Most community colleges are open enrollment institutions that welcome all students regardless of their high school GPA or SAT scores. Policymakers seem to forget that not all students who graduate from high school are motivated or academically able to complete college. That’s one of the reasons that the Department of Education tracks the first year to second year retention rates for all colleges.

I accessed stats for Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) from College Navigator and  NOVA reported a 73 percent retention rate for full-time students and a 53 percent retention rate for part-time students. NOVA also reported that 49 percent of its entering students were “full-time, first-time” in 2020. That percentage can vary widely among open enrollment, adult-serving institutions.

To prove that point, I accessed the stats for the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). CCBC reported a 53 percent retention rate for full-time students and a 40 percent retention rate for part-time students. CCBC also reported that 36 percent of its entering students were “full-time, first-time” in 2020.

NOVA and CCBC are well-known and respected community colleges in Virginia and Maryland. Is the difference in first to second year retention rates an indicator that NOVA’s curriculum and instruction is “better” than CCBC’s? I doubt it. I believe the differences may be related more to the wealthier demographics of the student population in Northern Virginia than Baltimore County. Based on the research from the paper, it would be useful to see if there were similar characteristics among the earnings distributed among NOVA and CCBC degrees as compared to the dataset from the Virginia Community College System.

I applaud the authors and their research outlined in this paper. If the trend is to hold higher education institutions more accountable for student outcomes, we need more research at the state level to explain those outcomes and why they may be different from means or medians as reported in national data tracked by the Department of Education.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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