Millions of Californians Who Started College Could Use Help to Finish It


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No degree means diminished opportunities, study finds

Millions of Californians who began their college education but never finished deserve special support and policy changes to help get them across the finish line later in life, a new report urges.

The study from the non-partisan California Competes organization estimates that 4 million Californians, ages 25 to 64, earned some college credits at various times but no associate or bachelor’s degrees and are not in school now. As a result, their employment and financial prospects have suffered and they face “diminishing opportunities in labor markets that increasingly rely on workers with degrees,” said the report entitled “Back to College: California’s Imperative to Re-Engage Adults.”

The report found that those adults with some college but no degree are significantly less likely to earn more than $75,000 a year compared to those who have at least an associate degree from a community college. Only 14 percent of those who didn’t finish their degrees earn in that upper income bracket, compared to 36 percent of those who have degrees (and 5 percent of those with just high school or less).

Not surprisingly, fewer of those adults who have some college credits but no diploma own homes and have full health insurance compared to graduates. And other research shows that non-completers have higher default rates on college loans, with unhappy consequences.

“We’ve already invested in folks who haven’t crossed the finish line. So our argument is that it makes sense to help them get across the finish line to benefit the broader California economy and to boost their individual prosperity,” Lande Ajose, executive director of California Competes, said in an interview. That Oakland-based organization analyzes ways to improve higher education in the state and how such reforms can aid the economy. Ajose is also chairwoman of the California Student Aid Commission, which administers Cal Grants.

The study showed ethnic disparities for college completion among California adults between ages 25 and 64, with higher rates for whites and Asians than for Latinos and blacks. Sixty two percent of Asians of that age had earned a degree, compared to 53 percent of whites, 34 percent of blacks and 18 percent of Latinos.

However, black adults showed the highest rate (28 percent) of their ethnic group who started but did not finish a degree, followed by whites (23 percent), Latinos (17 percent) and Asians (13 percent).

Among the roadblocks facing adults who want to return to college are limitations on financial aid that don’t affect most traditional age students, noted the report.

For example, federal Pell Grants are available for only 12 semesters over a person’s life and many of these adults are likely to have already used that allotment up years ago. Because of qualification rules and limits on expenditures, state-funded Cal Grants are very difficult to obtain for people who are older than 28 and several years out of high school. State officials are looking at ways to improve Cal Grants, including making them more available to people who attend community college years after high school.

“The inadequate financial aid options available to returning adults exacerbate the economic trends” that hurt the earning potential of people without degrees, the report said. In addition those people face personal and scheduling problems juggling work and family issues with their studies if they want to complete their degrees.

In addition, the report described poor coordination among California’s higher education systems and resulting “structural barriers that impede adults’ abilities to return to school.” Those include difficult access to academic transcripts and older data among different colleges and universities if an adult started at one or two campuses and seeks to finish at another, it said.

While describing problems, the report does not offer specific suggestions for improvements. California Competes officials said they expect a second report to do so by year’s end.

Adults without college degrees or certificates are at the center of a much-discussed effort in California. State leaders hope that the opening of a new on-line community college late next year will offer training and extra education for skilled jobs in fast growing industries. Those credentials are intended mainly to be completed in a year or less.

However, most adults who want to finish the more traditional associate or bachelor’s degrees still must attend the state’s other 114 community colleges or a four-year university. Adult students currently can take some online courses offered at those schools.

However, Ajose said college campuses should make their class schedules and other services more flexible to serve older students.

Meanwhile, a separate new report shows that students who took out federal student loans for college but never finished degrees default at high rates and face many problems as a result. Twenty three percent of borrowers who started college in 2003-04 defaulted within 12 years compared to 11 percent of those who completed, according to a policy brief by the The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

Defaulters face “stark and immediate consequences” that could include fines, wage garnishment, lost job opportunities and suspended driver’s and professional licences, said the report entitled “The Self-Defeating Consequences of Student Loan Default.” TICAS, a non-partisan research and policy group with offices in Oakland and Washington, D.C., called for reforms that would lift some of the most burdensome penalties and make easier to enroll in income-based repayment plans.


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