Are Non-Completers Missing Out?

by Christina Pena
March 3, 2015

Recent research focusing on college “non-completers” demonstrates how matching postsecondary and employment data improves our understanding of what is happening to students as they navigate postsecondary education and enter the workforce. 

In “Is It Worth It? Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Outcomes for the Disadvantaged,” scholars were able to show that earnings, especially among disadvantaged students, were significantly hindered by low completion rates in postsecondary programs, poor academic performance in secondary and post-secondary education, and a failure to choose high-earning fields. They arrived at these conclusions after studying data from Florida, which has one of the more comprehensive data systems, allowing linkages from eighth grade through graduate school and into the workforce. Two conclusions stand out:

  • There are relatively high labor market returns to mostly technical certificate programs, and to AAS/AS degrees rather than AAs, even for those with weak academic performance, confirming that “the market returns to technical skills, including at the sub-BA level, are relatively large.”
  • Still, many of the students choose BA and Humanities fields, even though studying in those fields was more likely to result in lower program completion and lower wages.

Also focusing on non-completers, the authors of a recent working paper from the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment look at students who earn a certificate, diploma, or degree, versus those who do not, and employ methods that allow them to calculate the labor market returns to programs of study. The investigators utilize a data set that matches community college transcripts in North Carolina with the state’s Department of Commerce Unemployment Insurance records.  

The paper finds that earnings vary by the type of credential obtained, but suggests that “it is important for students to take into account not only the returns to a program, but the probability of actually completing that program.”

Another recent paper, “The New Forgotten Half and Research Directions to Support Them,” uses national survey results to examine youth with “some college,” but no credential. The authors use data collected from the nationally representative Educational Longitudinal Survey, which followed the high school class of 2004.

Eight years after high school, nearly half of community college students did not earn any certificate or degree. This is particularly troubling because the paper notes that unless a student gets a credential, there is no earnings payoff for accumulating college credit. Thus, the authors suggest that “students might reduce the risk of prolonged enrollment and improve their chances of degree completion if they plan interim sub-baccalaureate credentials on the way to a bachelor’s degree.”

This recommendation is consistent with a recent U.S. Census survey which showed that non-degree credential attainment bumped up wages.

All three reports show the value of making connections between educational and workforce data, and point to the utility of more widely capturing non-degree credentials.