Bringing back students with no credentials


Nearly 6 in 10 (58.3%) of 39 million Americans who have taken at least a few college courses but haven’t earned a credential last attended a community college, according to a new report. Among those former community college students who did return to college, the two-year path was the choice for nearly 40% of them, and the bulk of those came back to the community college where they last enrolled.

That spells out some promising potential for community colleges that are struggling to replenish their enrollments following draconian drops due to the pandemic. Even before Covid hit, two-year colleges, in general, faced a steady drop in enrollment, partly due to students opting to work in a red-hot economy rather than pursue a college credential.

Seeing that a good chunk of former students who didn’t earn a credential are likely to return to a community college — and even to the same one — is encouraging news for those colleges. But to get more of the students to return will require community colleges to focus on finding ways to address the barriers that prompted many of them to drop out — conflicts with work and family obligations, child care, housing, transportation and more.

“Many community colleges are working diligently to re-engage former students and to provide a myriad of supports to remove barriers to completion of their academic goals,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Seeing that students who have re-enrolled are persisting and completing is a hopeful sign for enrollments. For many colleges, there is an intentional focus on supporting underserved populations.”

New figures

As of July 2020, more than 39 million Americans have “some college, no credential” (SCNC), according to a National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center report released Tuesday. That number is up 3.1 million from nearly 36 million previously reported in 2019, the center said, noting that the increase is due to both growth and also different data that the center has collected since then. Most SCNC students last attended a community college, representing 22.7 million students (58.3%) of SCNCs.

Of the 39 million total SCNCs, 944,200 of them (ages 18 to 64) re-enrolled in the 2020-21 academic year, and 60,400 students (same age span) earned their first postsecondary credential, the NSC Research Center reported. About 62% of re-enrollees chose a different institution from their last enrollment. The largest number re-enrolled at a community college (50.6%), with all other types of institutions following by a wide margin, such as primarily online institutions (14.8%), public four-years (12.8%), primarily associate-degree four-years (10.7%), and private nonprofit four-years (8.0%). Re-enrolling in a community college after last attending a community college was the most common pathway for SCNC re-enrollees (363,400 students, 38.5%).

Taking a deeper look at the institution type of last enrollment, for SCNC students who stopped out of community colleges (519,000 students; 54.9% of all SCNC re-enrollees), they likely returned to the community college they left (227,000 students or 43.8%), or they went to a different community college (136,000 students or 26.3%) or a primarily online institution (60,800 students or 11.7%).

Those stopping out of community colleges were least likely to return to an institution in a different sector (29.9%), but when they did, they were twice as likely to enroll at a primarily online institution (POI) versus other institution sectors (20.8% for POIs versus 10.9% for public four-years, for example). For students stopping out of a POI or a four-year institution, they were more likely to re-enroll in a community college rather than a different POI or four-year institution.

The report provides data at the national and state levels, with details on student subgroups categorized by gender, age and race/ethnicity. The SCNC demographic and enrollment characteristics are largely the same as the center reported in 2019: Most are younger than 35 when stopping out. Men tended to be younger than women at last enrollment. And most SCNC students last attended a community college, representing 22.7 million students (58.3%) of SCNCs.

The findings also show:

  • Women outnumbered men in re-enrollment, credential earning and perseverance. The share of re-enrollees among minority women was substantially higher than men (63.5% versus 34.6%).
  • Associate degrees were the most common credential earned by Latinx students (42.5%).
  • Black students were most likely to have completed a certificate (42.7%).
  • Asian and White students persevered at rates higher than other groups (61.2% and 57.6%, respectively) compared to Latinx (55%), Black (51.4%) and Native American (51.1%) students.

What’s working

The NSC Research Center report noted that high college costs, inaccessibility and the current strong labor market have kept low-skilled workers out of higher education. But not completing credentials could have long-term effects, it said.

“If these trends continue, a growing number of U.S. workers lacking education credentials risk being left behind in the twenty-first century economy,” the center said.

An online panel organized by the center on Tuesday discussed those challenges in detail as well as some solutions that community colleges and other higher educations have implemented to entice students to return to finish their first credential. Patricia Steele, whose Higher Ed Insight organization recently completed a study on the issue, said many interviewed adults who re-enrolled in the past few years didn’t end their education but rather waited for a good time to re-enroll.

“College was fitting in between life for them,” Steele said. “it just took time.”

Colorado’s Pueblo Community College (PCC) zeroed in when it learned that about 6,000 former PCC students didn’t earn a credential, said President Patricia Erjavec, whose college serves about 8,000 students annually. PCC developed a return-to-learn program that sought SCNC students who left the college within a year or two, had already earned 30 to 45 credits, and owed the college less than $500 for various expenses. In addition, if the students completed a semester successfully, PCC would cancel their debt to the college, which would allow many of them to be eligible again for student aid.

But PCC also focused on the reasons why those students dropped out in the first place–many of which are common among many community college students, said Erjavec, noting that PCC beefed up its wraparound services to keep returning students in school.

Since 2016, the program has served 532 SCNC students, with an 87% success rate, Erjavec said.

Although offering such support services is intensive for community colleges, at PCC re-engaging with SCNC students started with a phone call to each of those students.

“The first question wasn’t ‘Are you coming back to college?’ The question was ‘We noticed that you’re gone. Is everything OK? Is there anything we can do you for as an institution to help you?'” Erjavec said. “Developing a genuine relationship is extremely important.”

Erjavec also credited the college’s targeted social media campaign as well as word of mouth in getting SCNC students back.

Steele noted that research shows that messaging is important. Students mulling a return want to see a connection between education and career advancement, an accelerated path toward completion, better student supports, accessing programs and advisors at nontypical hours, more online hybrid program options and more.

Erjavec agreed. She recalled a single mother who re-enrolled at PCC to complete her degree. Working part-time and taking care of three children, the student signed up for a philosophy class taught by a new, first-time professor who on the first day gave a hefty reading assignment with a report due the next class.

“What do you think that mother did?” Erjavec asked, noting the college worked with the professor and student to address the issue.

“We have to make sure that our faculty, that our staff, are also well aware of what it’s going to take to help our students to get across the finish line,” she said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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