"Some College, No Degree" Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Earlier this month the Lumina Foundation’s annual Stronger Nation report noted that in 2013 the number of Americans ages 25 to 64 with “some college, no degree” rose about one quarter of 1 percent to an estimated 36.4 million.

That figure is especially important to the Adult College Completion Network (ACCN), which has set a goal of no more than 35.5 million “some college, no degree” adults by 2016. In a blog post from May 5, 2014, ACCN’s Patrick Lane wrote: “While one year does not a trend make, this shows that those working to serve this population will have to make significant progress over the next two years to meet the target of reducing this number to 35.5 million by 2016.”

Maybe not.

That one checkbox – “some college, no degree” – doesn’t tell the whole story. Recent research shows that there are better ways to measure real educational attainment. And the first federal survey to use the new approach indicates that we may be underestimating our own achievement.

The idea of “some college, no degree” comes from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, both of which measure educational attainment. They ask for the highest degree or level of school completed. And right between the boxes for a high school diploma and an associate’s degree is the box for “some college, no degree.” It’s true that “some college” includes people who dropped out without any credential. But AIR’s work with the Department of Education and other federal partners since 2009 to improve how adults report their educational attainment shows that “some college, no degree” can mean a lot more than that.

So, what happens when the “some college” option is supplemented with questions that let people provide additional detail about what they’ve learned since high school? Reporting on the first federal survey to use the improved measures, the Census Bureau found that nearly a quarter of adults age 18 or older with “some college” had actually completed a formal credential: 19 percent reported holding a professional certification or a license and 10 percent reported having completed an educational certificate (with some reporting both).

What’s more, those certifications and certificates had real value for the people who earned them. Adults with “some college” and a certificate or certification had median monthly earnings of about $3,300—almost $400 more a month than their “some college” peers who hadn’t earned an additional credential. By comparison, adults who earned an associate’s degree but didn’t complete an additional certificate or certification reported median monthly earnings of $3,240—a statistical dead heat.

ACCN is right. We can do better than “some college, no degree.” And part of that work is ensuring that every student who enters college leaves with a credential that prepares them for a better career and a better life. But another part involves collecting more useful information about those who are forced to answer “some college” when they have actually earned career credentials. Once the American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey start to ask about educational certificates and professional certifications, we can stop underestimating just how strong our “stronger nation” has become.