Much attention has been given in recent weeks to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to drop out of Marquette University in the spring of his senior year. The Republican presidential hopeful was just 34 credits short of earning a bachelor’s degree in 1990. He never went back.
Various media reports have analyzed how the lack of a college degree makes Walker unusual presidential material, at least in recent history, though the distinction makes him like most Americans, 70 percent of whom don’t have a bachelor’s degree.
But that figure includes people who never even stepped foot on a college campus. What’s more significant about Walker dropping out of college is that he’s like an increasing number of Americans who have some college credits, but no degree to show for their work.
There are nearly 45 million Americans over the age of 24 who have some college and no degree. That’s more than one in five U.S. adults. In many ways, those people are no better off financially than high-school graduates who never attempted college at all. College dropouts don’t earn much more, on average, than those with only a high-school diploma.
The salary premium for a college degree only comes if you actually earn a degree.
In some cases, college dropouts might be worse off than those with only a high-school diploma if they had to take on loan debt to pay for their credits. Student loan debt has skyrocketed in the past decade, and that unfortunate trend has coincided with another one: the growth in the number of young people with some college credit but no degree.
Some 2.2 million people under the age of 30 have earned at least half the credits they need for a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. What’s concerning is that 20-somethings represent the biggest slice of the population by far who have that many credits but no degree.
Americans Who Have At Least Two or More Years of College But No Degree, By Age
Last week, I wrote about how more college students these days are thinking about switching schools before they earn a degree. But many students are never lucky enough to transfer. An estimated 400,000 students now drop out of college every year.
Most students who drop out do so early on, according to the Clearinghouse. One-third of dropouts tracked by the Clearinghouse were enrolled for only one term. Most dropouts never make it to their junior year. So Governor Walker is unusual in that respect. Just 12 percent of dropouts completed more than two years of college.
That’s still tens of thousands of people in most states who are what the Clearinghouse calls “potential completers” because they are so close to finishing. In Wisconsin, for example, there are nearly 68,000 such potential completers. It’s one reason why, as Paul Fain pointed out recently in Inside Higher Ed, that Walker pushed hard for the University of Wisconsin system to adopt a competency-based degree. Such degrees are based on assessments of what students know, rather than how much time they spend in a lecture hall. Walker’s aides have said he wants to pursue such a degree someday.
One related note from the Clearinghouse data: Nearly two-thirds of the people in the U.S. with some college credit and no degree attended only a community college before dropping out. That’s a critical point given that President Obama has proposed making community college free for millions of Americans. Unless the president’s idea is coupled with other reforms that improve two-year colleges, many of the students who go to community colleges for free could end up becoming a dropout like Walker, but without the governor’s job or paycheck.