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Adults Returning to College: More Than 3 Million Are Ready to Finish

Scott Jeffe

Vice President, Research (Graduate and Online)

December 16, 2019

Adults Returning to College: 3 Million Ready to Complete Degrees
More than 3 million adults returning to college are considered likely to complete their degrees according to new national research.

A new report by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC)— Some College, No Degree: A 2019 Snapshot for the Nation and 50 States—shows a significant enrollment opportunity for colleges recruiting adults returning to college. According to the report, there are 36 million American adults with some college but no degree. Of those adults, 10 percent (or more than 3 million) have characteristics of students most likely to return to college and complete their degrees. This helps colleges understand how to best target these individuals. These adults are a prime student population enrollment growth for colleges and universities.

However, adult learners have different expectations, motivations, and decision time frames than traditional undergraduates. The new NSC report profiles key statistics and identifies trends since their first report on this topic in 2013, and uses the records of the 29 million students identified in the 2013 report to determine which characteristics indicate an adult learner is most likely to complete a degree.

9 key findings and characteristics of adults with some college but no degree

1. Eight years out, one-third have still not graduated.Approximately 2 million students annually enroll for the first time, but eight years later, one-third still have no credential in hand. Completion rates haven’t discernibly changed in many years.

2. Most were not enrolled very long. 29 percent of this population only enrolled for a single semester/term, and 61 percent were enrolled for more than one term but less than two years. Only 10 percent were enrolled for 2+ years.

3. Those enrolled for 2+ years are significantly more likely to finish. Among 36 million students with some college credit but no degree (6.6m more than in 2013), the 10 percent with 2+ years of credit are significantly more likely to re-enroll and finish a credential. The report labels them “Potential Completers.”

4. Potential Completers are younger and closer to their last enrollment. Compared with all of the students with some college but no degree, Potential Completers:

  • Are younger today (58 percent under 30, compared with 23 percent of 36 million adults)
  • Were younger when they last enrolled (75 percent under 30, compared with 56 percent of the entire pool)
  • Were enrolled more recently (4.4 years on average, compared with 10.8 for all).

5. Potential Completers well match other racial/ethnic patterns. There are no significant differences among those who return and complete a credential and the general parameters of the American higher education market. However, when looking at those who return to complete a bachelor’s degree, both African American and Hispanic students well out-pace their proportion in the general undergraduate market.

6. Data differ considerably by state.” California, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington have large numbers of Some College, No Degree students, but have less than the national average of 10 percent who are Potential Completers.

New York, North Carolina, and Texas also have large cohorts but exceed the Potential Completers national average with 11 percent.

The states with the largest proportions of Potential Completers are: Delaware (15 percent), Arizona and Mississippi (each 14 percent), and Indiana Hawaii (13 percent for each).

7. Most attended community college. Two-thirds of this population started at or last attended a community college (compared with about 20 percent at four-year publics); the largest share (57 percent) chose to re-enroll at a community college; and the largest share (44 percent) graduated from a community college. Not surprisingly, associate degrees are the most common credential.

8. Those who choose online succeed: Only 4 percent of this population were last enrolled online. Three times that (12 percent or all returning) choose an online program upon reentry, and nearly all of them complete their studies (11 percent of all graduates).

9. Completers are preparing for further study or a business career. The largest share of associate degree completers (40 percent) get their degree in liberal/general studies—a common precursor to a bachelor’s degree—while the largest share of bachelor’s degree completers (23 percent) get their degree in business/management.

Additional takeaways about adults returning to college

This report makes is clear that colleges seeking to recruit adults returning to college who have less than two years of college credit will have a difficult time doing so; they will have a harder time keeping these students enrolled through to completion. The report also makes clear that while community colleges are the largest source of the some college, no degree phenomenon, they are also the most popular route to eventual completion.

Four-year colleges looking to benefit from this ever-growing population of students may be best advised to focus on promoting the significant lifelong advantages of completing a bachelor’s degree in partnership with community colleges in their region. While they can go directly after these students, doing so may imply that they can only attract 20 percent of the 10 percent of all “some college, no degree” population that is most likely to finish.

Explore more research and solutions for adult learners

Graduate Student and Online Learner Enrollment Management

RNL has several resources to help you understand the adult and online learner market so you can identify your best prospects, engage those students, and nurture them toward enrollment.


About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.


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