The untapped potential of ‘some college, no degree’

By Beverly E. Perdue and Pete Wheelan

What if states discovered a natural resource with the potential to create thousands of jobs, unlock individual prosperity, and produce an infusion of talent to power economic growth? What if the infrastructure to discover and refine this resource was already in place? As it turns out, this economic super fuel may be the tens of millions of Americans who started college but never finished.  And states can unlock its economic potential without fracking, mining, or drilling. 

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that over the past two decades, more than 31 million students have enrolled in college and left without receiving a degree or certificate. A bachelor’s degree holder earns, on average, about 46 percent more than someone who has some college credits but no degree. Getting these would-be completers over the finish line could generate massive economic gains for individuals – and economies. Estimates suggest that the ‘some college, no degree’ problem represents lost economic value of $500 billion per year.

And our reserves of potential degree-earners are only growing. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy, enrollment for adult students is projected to grow more than twice as fast as for traditional students over the next decade. Most will go to school part-time to accommodate a full-time job. Many will be raising families and paying the cost of their education themselves. Tapping the potential of adult learners demands a new paradigm for how we view the “typical college student” and the adoption of proven strategies to support not just their enrollment but completion. 

Fortunately, states are leading the way with initiatives that support this population with unprecedented effectiveness and scale. Here’s how:

Campaigning for College

For busy adults with serious responsibilities, figuring out not just whether – but how – to go back to school can create a roadblock.   State leaders can take the first step with targeted campaigns that identify adults with the greatest potential to graduate and helping them to navigate re-enrollment.

At the epicenter of the free college movement, Tennessee Reconnect uses a range of online resources and tools to provide tailored information about college options and costs to prospective students who are often parents with full time jobs. It offers grants that enable students to complete a technical college program tuition-free. In Oklahoma, a similar program called “Reach Higher” has helped 1,490 working adults earn degrees since 2007 by offering pathways to both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees at over twenty state institutions.

Full Faith and Credit

Many partial completers don’t know how many college credits they need to complete a degree, especially if they’re enrolling at an institution that’s different from the one at which they started.  Like Tennessee Reconnect, Texas provides dedicated support to help aspiring graduates assess the transferability of credits that they earned in the past to understand how far they might be down the path to completion.  GradTX, launched only two years ago, works to connect students with the universities around the state that best meet their needs. Participating universities have academic advisors and financial aid specialists to help students lay out a clear path to completion.

Targeted Support

College advising and coaching programs are often organized around the needs of younger students, adapting to life on their own for the first time.  But research shows that adult learners benefit from different types of support to balance work and family with academic commitments.  When Starbucks and Arizona State University partnered to offer every Starbucks employee the chance to earn a degree, they provided each student with a team of advisors to help navigate life and logistical challenges.  Today, a number of organizations are providing support services for military veterans who often have some college experience and may be eligible to convert their military training and credentials to academic credit.

Rethinking Aid

At a time when institutions are launching innovative programs to draw adults back into college, most enrollment and financial aid are still oriented toward traditional students. In California, there’s no state financial aid specifically directed at students re-entering college, despite the fact that there are 4.5 million adults in the state with some credit but no degree. Targeted scholarships could help returning students complete the handful of credits they have left – but such programs don’t exist.

Meanwhile, 33 of the nation’s 100 largest state financial aid programs link aid eligibility to high school GPA or exams like the SAT or ACT – metrics that tell us little about adults that might re-enroll. Many of these programs are as inflexible as they are irrelevant: 29 only support students who enroll full-time, and 43 programs only distribute funds across rigid two- or four-year timelines. On the national level, policy proposals now before the U.S. Congress would eliminate year-round Pell Grant eligibility, stripping vital access to financial aid for working adults most likely to use it during summer sessions.

Bottom line: we can’t effectively serve today’s college students with yesterday’s recruitment, enrollment, and finance policies. Outdated attitudes prevent us from supporting the students who stand to gain the most. It’s time to put a stronger emphasis on the growing pool of adult learners who want to complete their degree, so that millions of near-completers can improve their job prospects and add to our nation’s economic potential. Let’s not allow this reservoir of latent potential to go untapped.

Serving as the 73rd governor of North Carolina, Bev Perdue has dedicated over 25 years in public service focused on creating jobs, strengthening education, and increasing access to postsecondary education. She is the founder of the non-profit organization, DigiLEARN: Digital Learning Institute and serves as a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisors. Pete Wheelan, CEO of San Francisco based education firm, InsideTrack, has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.