Degrees of difficulty: Millions have some college, no degree to show

A national report says Arizona had almost 600,000 people with some college education but no degree to show for it, part of the 36 million such “noncompleters” in the U.S. at the end of 2018. (Photo by John Walker/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Arizona had almost 600,000 “noncompleters” last year – people with some higher education but no degree to show for it – and the state is not alone.

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center said 36 million Americans are noncompleters, with more than half of them clustered in nine states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Washington. California alone had 5.7 million degree-less former students living in the state.

Experts say the number reflects a national problem colleges have when dealing with nontraditional students: They do a great job nurturing 18-year-olds fresh from high school, but are not nearly as adept at supporting students who do not fit that bill.

“The person didn’t fail, the system failed them,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at the Lumina Foundation.

Brown said the current higher education system is set up to welcome students fresh out of high school who leave with a degree after four years and alienates those who do not fit into that box. Many noncompleters are older, financially independent and may have children to care for, she said.

“It’s difficult for today’s students because it’s not set up for them,” she said at the research center’s release of the report in the fall.

Arizona, with 589,661 noncompleters at the end of 2018, did not even crack the top 20 among states, finishing in 21st place for number of noncompleters. It was one of a dozen states, however, where the number of noncompleters surpassed the number of students enrolled in postsecondary programs, according to the report.

Arizona Board of Regents Executive Director John Arnold said Arizona’s universities, like those in all states, could do more to support students. But he insisted the schools are making great strides.

Arnold pointed to tuition rates that are guaranteed through a student’s four years at Northern Arizona University and the University of Arizona as one example. And all three state universities have noncompetitive enrollment platforms, part of their commitment to eliminating barriers to higher education.

The three universities have also partnered with community colleges to offer reverse-transfer credits, allowing students to apply their credits from a four-year school toward their community college studies.

Students can also agree to share their transcripts with a local community college when applying for a four-year university, which leaves open the door of getting an associate’s degree from the community college if the student is forced to drop out of the four-year college with at least 60 credits.

“We have awarded hundreds of degrees that way,” Arnold said. “It’s a great way for noncompleters to get something out of it.”

Reverse-transfer programs are up and running at Maricopa Community College. Pima Community College is in the middle of developing such a program with the University of Arizona and hopes to launch it soon, said Pima’s Dean of Enrollment David Arellano.

It is just one way Pima Community College is reaching out to potential completers, former students with two years of college under their belts who are more likely to re-enroll and finish school. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report estimates that there are 3.5 million potential completers in the U.S.

“This is a huge population of students,” said Arellano, who said his school is also mounting an outreach campaign this spring to get former students to re-enroll. “There is an opportunity to get students connected to institutions that can help them.”

At Arizona State University, the Starbucks College Achievement Plan was designed to do just that. Since its introduction in 2014, more than 3,000 Starbucks employees have earned ASU degrees through the program at the company’s expense, said ASU EdPlus spokesperson Carrie Peterson.

The program, which currently has 13,000 Starbucks workers enrolled nationwide, aims to have 25,000 graduates by 2025, she said.

A similar partnership with Uber was announced in November 2018.

“ASU believes so much in this type of educational pathway that in spring 2019 we worked with a global impact investment firm called the Rise Fund to announce the creation of InStride,” Peterson said in an emailed statement. “InStride … will work to expand corporate educational partnerships and will help not just ASU but other universities provide educational opportunities to this population of students.”

Arnold said he thinks Arizona’s traditional programs are “functional” as is for nontraditional students, but he said policy changes at the state level could help, particularly increased financial aid.

“We do provide significant financial aid but we want the state to come out and say they will support people,” he said.

The goal is simple, he said: “If you’re academically eligible, we want you to go to college.”