Who's Not Finishing College in Philadelphia?

A look at the barriers some face in earning their degrees

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Who's Not Finishing College in Philadelphia?
higher education
Philadelphia’s low percentage of adults with higher education degrees is often cited as a key factor in explaining the city’s lackluster economic performance over the past several decades.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Seventeen percent of Philadelphians age 25 or older—about 176,000 people—have earned some credits toward an associate or bachelor’s degree but have not attained either one.

Nearly three-quarters of Philadelphia residents who haven’t finished college—about 127,000—are at least 35 years old, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, from 2016. Thirty-nine percent live in households with children under the age of 18, and 70 percent of those with jobs work 40 hours a week or more.

In addition, Philadelphians with some college credits but no degree are disproportionately black and female compared with the city’s overall population. About 8 percent are veterans. And while the percentage of residents who are college noncompleters is about the same as in other major cities, Philadelphia has the greatest proportion of adults who have never attended college—49 percent—among the 15 largest U.S. cities.

Philadelphia’s low percentage of adults with higher education degrees—34 percent, compared with 53 percent in Boston and 60 percent in Washington—is often cited as a key factor in explaining the city’s lackluster economic performance over the past several decades. Reducing the ranks of the noncompleters could help address that.

Barriers to college completion

Research from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance indicates that age, parental responsibilities, and full-time work are among the factors that make it difficult to find time for classes. About 10 percent of those who haven’t finished college were enrolled in school in 2016.

And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, college noncompleters nationwide borrow more on a per credit basis than do those who graduate within six years.

Race, ethnicity, and gender

Half of Philadelphians with some college credit but no degree are black, which is 10 percentage points greater than their share of all city residents 25 or older. Thirty-five percent are white, 6 points less than their proportion of the adult population. And 57 percent of adult noncompleters are female, 3 points greater than their share of the 25-or-older cohort.

Veteran status

About 8 percent of adult Philadelphians with some college credit but no degree are veterans, representing 23 percent of the city’s veterans. And 31 percent of younger veterans, ages 25-44, are noncompleters, although some are probably eligible for programs designed to help them earn degrees.

Barbara Mattleman, executive director of Graduate Philadelphia, which helps adults with some college credit return to school, said some veterans find the process of returning to college onerous and discouraging, even though they often get academic credit for their military experience.

Employment, income, poverty

In Philadelphia, noncompleters fare better, in terms of both employment and household income, than residents who have never attended college but not as well as residents with a college degree.

Sixty-seven percent of Philadelphians ages 25-64 with some college credit but no degree are employed, according to the census. That percentage is lower than for residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher (83 percent) or with an associate degree (76 percent) but higher than for those with a high school diploma or less (52 percent).

In terms of income, 18 percent of college noncompleters live in households with annual incomes of $100,000 or more. The comparable percentages are 23 percent for those with associate degrees, 42 percent for people with bachelor’s degrees or more, and only 11 percent for those with high school educations or less schooling.

Eighteen percent of residents with some college credit but no degree live at or below the poverty line; the overall poverty rate for Philadelphians 25 or older is 21 percent. A 2014 analysis by the Census Bureau found that the percentage of college noncompleters nationally living at or below the poverty level is lower than for the overall adult population.

Where college noncompleters live

As shown in the map below, many areas of Philadelphia with a large share of noncompleters are close to higher education institutions. But several other such areas—including parts of the Lower Northeast, Oak Lane, East Mount Airy, and Wynnefield—are not close to colleges and universities.

Other cities

Philadelphia’s share of college noncompleters is similar to those of the nation’s 14 other most populous cities, and the proportion has not changed much in any of those cities since 2010. Nearly half of Philadelphians 25 or older have not attended college, the highest proportion among the cities analyzed. And only 29 percent have four-year degrees, the fourth-lowest among the 15 cities.

Philadelphia’s level of educational attainment has been edging up in recent years, but it would be much higher if the city had fewer college noncompleters.

Larry Eichel directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia research initiative, and Michelle Schmitt is a researcher on the team.

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