NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

A Bit of College Can Be Worse Than None at All

October 14, 2014

Americans have flocked to colleges in unprecedented numbers in the last half-decade, fueled by a conviction that postsecondary education is the surest route to steady employment and higher salaries.

Yet those who begin, but don\'t complete, a degree are learning the hard way that the payoff is in finishing-- or that they might have been better off not attending college at all.

The number of students who don\'t complete college is growing.

Nearly one-third of students who started college in 2012 didn\'t return to a U.S. school the following year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

And a new report out from a group of higher-education organizations found that roughly two-thirds of students who return to school after interrupted courses of study still don\'t graduate.

Those students may find themselves doubly damned: cut out of consideration for professional-track jobs, and starting their careers years behind their peers who entered the workforce with just high-school diplomas. Many have student loans to boot.

And both groups struggle to cobble together a living in their 20s. College dropouts have a lower unemployment rate than those with no college credits --12.1% versus 15.5%, respectively, for 20- to 29-year-olds -- but they work almost exactly the same number of hours a week and weeks a year, according to a Drexel University Center for Labor Markets and Policy analysis of Current Population Survey data.

Median annual earnings for young adults with some college were $15,640 in 2012, the most-recent year available, on par with high-school graduates\' earnings. Associate-degree holders earned $18,120, while those with at least a bachelor\'s degree could expect median earnings of $24,990.

Eighty-six percent of for-profit college dropouts had accrued federal debt.

Those loans are weighing more on people who don\'t finish school than they used to. In 2001, such people had federal loan debt totaling 24% of their annual income, a figure that rose to 35% by 2009.

Few hiring managers say that college graduates are more qualified than nongrads for jobs in retail and warehouses, but as long as the job market is tight, employers say they can afford to be picky.

Source:  Melissa Korn, "A Bit of College Can Be Worse Than None at All," Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.


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