An eye on returning learners with no credentials


Findings in a new report support that students — including students who had “some college but no credential” (SCNC) — are slowly returning to postsecondary education.

The latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center shows that more than 943,000 SCNC working-age adults (under age 65) re-enrolled in the 2022-23 academic year, a 9% increase (78,300 students) over the previous year, when higher education institutions — especially community colleges — were still feeling the effects of the Covid pandemic on their total enrollments.

The findings also show a slowdown among “stop-outs” over the previous year. Between January 2021 and July 2022, there were 2.3 million new stop-outs–defined as students who don’t enroll for three consecutive terms, or about 1.5 years. That’s down by about 16,000 from the previous year.

Of total re-enrollees in 2022-23, more than half (51.9%) sought an associate degree, 28.2% a bachelor’s degree, 13.3% an undergraduate credential and 6.7% other credentials. Coupled with reported recent upticks in fall and spring enrollments in the 2023-24 school year — with community colleges seeing the largest gains — two-year college advocates are hoping that more adult learners are returning to college, whether to upgrade skills, acquire new ones or start a path toward a higher degree.

“It is encouraging to see an increase in the number of students re-enrolling this year,” Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, said in a Zoom call Wednesday with reporters.

But, even with the gains, it didn’t dent the overall number of SCNC adults, whose numbers increased by 2.9% to 36.8 million between July 2021 and July 2022. That accounts for nearly one in five Americans, and every state but Alaska saw growth in this population (Alaska was flat). Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida saw increases above 3.5% in their SCNC populations, led by Arizona with a 5.8% jump. On the other end, Illinois and Michigan saw only a 1.2% and 1.8% increase, respectively.

“It’s clear that higher education regularly generates more students leaving school without a credential than returning to finish one,” Shapiro said. “That’s a persistent challenge and a continuing opportunity for the higher education system to improve and grow.”

Re-enrolling at a different college

The increase in the number of re-enrollers last year just about reversed the decline of 80,000 noted in last year’s report, Shapiro said. More than two-thirds (67.1%) of re-enrollees seeking an associate degree were pursuing a two-year degree before they stopped out, the report shows. About 17.4% of re-enrollees seeing an associate degree previously were in a bachelor’s degree program.

Researchers also found that “potential completers” — those who had completed at least two year’s worth of full-time equivalent enrollment within the last 10 years — re-enrolled at nearly three times (6.2%) the rate of other SCNC adults, Shapiro said. Recent stop-outs re-enrolled at over five times (10.5%) the rate of older stop-outs.

Overall, 62.8% of all SCNC re-enrollees returned to a different school, and two-thirds of them also changed sectors. Among enrollees who previously attended a community college but didn’t come back to that college, 45.9% went to another community college. Among previous four-year learners who didn’t return to their previous college, 43.3% opted to attend a public two-year college.

“This means that colleges need to do more than simply look to their own former students to identify candidates to re-enroll,” Shapiro said.

The report shows that a substantial portion of all SCNC re-enrollees who didn’t return to their college enrolled in primarily online programs. For previous community college students, one in five (21.7%) re-enrolled at a primarily online institution.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Some College, No Credential Student Outcomes: Annual Progress Report,” June 2024.

Seeking the quickest route

The NSC Research Center also examined re-enrollees who earned credentials in 2022-23. Of the total 54,794, 43.3% earned an undergraduate certificate, 30.4% an associate degree, and 23.3% a baccalaureate. More than half (53%) of those credentials came from public two-year colleges, followed by 17.6% from public four-year institutions.

Shapiro said this indicates that students want to earn a credential quickly upon re-enrolling, citing that they are more likely to enroll in an associate or certificate program than the program they were previously enrolled in. He noted that the programs returners are enrolling in show that, too, as they are more likely to pursue a general education or liberal arts major compared to a math or science major they may have previously pursued.

“They are looking for the quickest route to a credential, anything that will help that prior investment pay off for them in the workforce,” Shapiro said.

Researchers also found that one-quarter of returning students who received a credential in their first year back did not re-enroll at all, meaning they already had enough credits and were held up by other barriers, such as outstanding fees, Shapiro said. A number of those students may also be “reverse transfer students,” meaning they are students who were in a baccalaureate program before they stopped out and later realized they had enough credits to earn an associate degree at their starting institution, he said.

Shapiro called these an “inefficiency in the system.”

“Colleges and universities can do a better job at facilitating degrees that essentially have been earned, but the student was unaware or the college had some other barriers that were stopping the degree from being awarded,” he said.

Low persistence

Researchers also looked at persistence among SCNC learners in their second year of re-enrollment. Two-year college students saw the lowest persistence rate (52%), while public four-year students had a 54.5% rate and primarily online programs a 63.7% rate.

Still, of the 80,010 learners who re-enrolled in 2021-22 and earned a credential in 2022-23, 38.5% earned an associate degree, 34.7% an undergraduate certificate and 21.2% a baccalaureate.

The center’s report — which was supported by Lumina Foundation — also includes breakdowns based on demographics such as race/ethnicity and gender, as well as state-level data.

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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