Students that return to college after stopping out earn far more money

Even those who go back but don't complete degrees experience better outcomes than those who remain out of postsecondary education.

According to new research released by Kansas State University, students who come back to pursue a bachelor’s degree after stopping out earn more money right after they graduate and every year thereafter.

The peer-reviewed study completed by economics professor Amanda Gaulke and published in the Economics of Education Review shows that the difference is significant—nearly $4,300 more upon graduation and $1,100 more annually than the students would have earned if they did not return to school.

“No matter how I looked at the data, those who returned and finished a bachelor’s degree see an economically meaningful increase in income after degree completion,” Gaulke said. “The average age at graduation for this sample is 27, so they certainly have a lot of working years left to experience improved labor market outcomes.”

Many studies have shown the impact of college degrees on incomes. But two more findings in Gaulke’s report show the strength of any postsecondary education in the job market:

  • Students who do reenroll are more employable and work more hours than their counterparts, and
  • Those who don’t even finish their studies tend to earn more on average.

“When thinking in terms of weighing costs and benefits, it is important for those people to know that there are real economic benefits of going back and completing a bachelor’s degree,” Gaulke said.

There are also drawbacks to not returning for both the individuals and for society’s institutions, from colleges to businesses. “To maximize economic output, we have to use resources efficiently,” Gaulke said. “If employees are not as productive or skilled because they are unable to make well-informed decisions about re-enrolling and completing their bachelor’s degrees, this reduces worker productivity.”

Recognizing the potential to increase enrollment and bring back students who can help boost graduation rates—no matter what age—institutions of higher education are making outreach to former students and other students a priority, although that has been slow to develop. According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data, nearly 36 million Americans fall into the category of having some college credit but no degree. Many institutions are trying to be more flexible in their offerings, particularly around shorter-term credentials.

In a recent report released by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) and online education provider StraighterLine, many Gen Z and millennial students say they are stopping out for financial reasons and family commitments, but also because they are dissatisfied with higher education. Only around 10% reengaged with their institutions, showing that higher ed has a long way to go to make those connections and change perceptions.

“Families are more financially fragile and students have greater challenges [because of the pandemic],” says Jim Fong, Chief Research Officer and Director of the Center for Research and Strategy at UPCEA. “If we don’t act or anticipate this, they’ll not only disengage but they will become disenfranchised with higher education.”

UPCEA and StraighterLine say there are five potential ways for institutions to bring students back into the system:

  1. Offer certificates for credits students have earned
  2. Lower financial burdens by reducing course costs
  3. Provide workshops to help students overcome personal setbacks
  4. Offer more robust counseling
  5. Step up concierge services
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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