Listening to Learners: What Non-Completers Have to Tell Us About Education Policy

Policymakers recognize that to remain competitive in a global, tech-enabled world, the United States will need an ever more educated and skilled population. For their part, states have increasingly focused on helping residents who started college, but left without a degree to return and earn a credential. And for good reason: 36 million Americans have some college experience, but no degree. This population is especially significant in a dozen states, including California, Illinois, and Washington, that have a larger share of the country’s non-completers than they do of current college-goers.

Data from the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey indicates that adults with college, but no degree are open to completing—only 19% say they don’t need or aren’t interested in further education. And a majority (53%) say they plan to enroll in courses or training within the next five years. But this makes them only marginally more likely than other adults without degrees to plan to enroll, despite their head start on degrees. Many cite the same concerns—work and supporting families—that led them to drop out in the first place. Getting them back to and through college will be no easy task.

Fortunately, however, listening to education consumers can help us better understand how to tailor state policies and initiatives—and the federal regulations and funding that underpin them—to encourage more adults without degrees to complete. Moreover, consumer voices shed light on how policy could be designed to help more students stay in college in the first place. What they tell us highlights four key focus areas for policy:

  • Work is a major barrier to earning a degree. In fact, the No. 1 reason non-completers say they left without a degree is work—and it’s a top reason they don’t plan to return. This is hugely problematic given that 40% of undergraduates now work at least 30 hours per week. Policies to increase college affordability could help. But many students are working not just to pay for school, but to support themselves and often their children. About 26% of undergraduates are raising children.
  • Flexibility must go hand-in-hand with affordability. The opportunity costs of college are as important as the financial costs: Many students said they left school because it didn’t fit their schedules for working or caring for their children. Indeed, among adults with some college but no degree, 63% say that free community college tuition would make them more likely to re-enroll, but almost as many (61%) say they would be motivated by courses and training that fit their schedules. When asked about the biggest barriers to re-enrolling, answers like work (17%), time (11%), and family obligations (7%) rival the cost of courses (12%).
  • Career outcomes matter. Given the prominence of work in adults’ lives, it’s perhaps no surprise that career outcomes are critical to motivating non-completers to finish their education. Fifty-nine percent of adults with some college but no degree say a guaranteed employment outcome, such as a job placement or wage increase, would motivate them to return to education. And another 51% cite courses and training that employers need.
  • Employers are critical education and training providers. Not only do career outcomes matter, but employers are actually the preferred education and training providers for non-completers. Thirty-three percent say they are likely to enroll in additional courses or training through an employer in the next five years, compared to only 23% for community colleges and 17% at a university. The primacy of employers holds across all age groups and racial and ethnic identities.

Taken together, these make a case for policies that enable affordable, flexible, and career relevant education. One without the others simply won’t serve most adult students—particularly non-completers—well. For proposals for free or debt free college to have legs with this population, they will need to be coupled with creative approaches to education delivery that maximize flexibility while preserving quality. These may include blended learning, direct assessment, and other forms of competency-based education that build upon existing skills and knowledge gained through work and life experiences.

Adults are more likely to enroll when they are confident the investments of time and money will lead to clear career benefits. Policies should encourage clarity and transparency around the career outcomes—from placement to salary—of different education and training programs. The expansion of the College Scorecard to include program-level outcomes and salary data is an important step in the right direction, but we need even greater consistency and granularity in the data.

Moreover, we need policies that support quality, work-relevant credentials of all kinds, not just degrees. That will require deeper connections between our education and workforce systems, and perhaps policies that incentivize more employers to invest directly in education and training for their workers. Whatever the case, Americans have made it clear that employers are essential partners when it comes to education policy.

With the right approach, we can turn those 36 million adults with college experience into the proud owners of meaningful credentials. To do so, we must start by listening to what they have to say.