Number of Americans with college but no degree nears 40 million

Clearinghouse tally held up as incentive for institutions to encourage returners, while also affirming scale of political dilemma confronting Biden

May 11, 2022
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Thirty-nine million Americans have spent some time in college without earning any completion credential, a leading industry association found, signalling both opportunities and costs confronting politically sensitive reform efforts.

The compilation by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that nearly 1 million of those Americans resumed some form of post-secondary training in the past academic year despite the complications of the pandemic.

Of those, more than 60,000 earned their first-ever post-secondary credential, including more than 18,000 bachelor’s degrees, the National Student Clearinghouse reported.

Finding and helping such students could make the difference in the health of many institutions, “at a time when most colleges are still reeling from historic enrolment declines during the pandemic”, the research centre’s executive director, Doug Shapiro, said in outlining the findings.

Yet the figures also reflect a grimmer reality in which people without degrees account for about 40 per cent of the estimated 46 million Americans who collectively owe more than $1.7 trillion (£1.4 trillion) in student loan debt, with many of them feeling blocked in careers and personal lives because they cannot take the gamble of new educational investments.

That disadvantaged cohort has been driving demands that President Joe Biden meet a 2020 campaign commitment to substantially forgive such debt, and thereby relieve the heavy economic drag of a massive social investment in a substantial segment of higher education that has largely failed to pay off.

Mr Biden so far has granted only limited debt cancellation, with his own party divided over the long-term wisdom and fairness of any broad-based forgiveness. He has been widely reported in recent days, however, to be growing more open to the idea as Democrats face congressional elections in November that they seem on course to lose.

The National Student Clearinghouse is a data services network representing most of US higher education. Its new analysis – an update of its previous assessment in 2019 of former students without degrees – makes no mention of the debt issue.

It instead emphasises the potential value of institutions becoming more attractive to students who want to resume their post-secondary careers.

Of the 60,400 students who returned to college to complete a credential in the 2020-21 academic year, 70 per cent did their new work at a public two-year or four-year institution, the clearinghouse said. Women outnumbered men among those returning to college, including by a nearly two-to-one margin among racial minorities, it found.

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