“They’re looking for employment,” said Keith Bird, chancellor-emeritus of Kentucky’s community college system and a fellow for the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, a policy group. “And that’s the bottom line.”

The popularity of seeking a higher education with no intention of graduating is a challenge for institutions that are increasingly focused on improving their graduation rates. Still, some institutions are responding by starting up programs for these students and considering new kinds of credentials to recognize the combinations of courses they’re taking.

People who enroll in, but do not earn degrees from, community colleges mainly gravitate toward courses focused on career and technical education, according to a study of students in the California Community College System. It found that these students typically enroll for no more than four semesters and take six or fewer credits per semester.

Skill builders in California are concentrated in construction, real estate, computers, law enforcement and early childhood education, according to Kathy Booth, co-author of the study. For most of them, the college credits led to wage increases.

Students who took courses in information technology, for instance, saw their pay increase by 5 percent. Skill builders at California community colleges overall saw their median salaries go up from $49,800 in 2008-09 to $54,600 in 2011-12, the system reports.

This may help explain why students opt for taking classes instead of earning degrees: They can spend less time and money in school but still see economic returns.

“The workforce is changing so dramatically and the economy is changing so dramatically that people need to keep going back to school to get the skills they need to stay employed or seek new employment,” Booth said.

According to research that followed students for up to eight years in the California Community College system, nearly one-third of students took an average of just two courses over about two years and overwhelmingly succeeded in these courses, but rarely attained a degree, certificate or transferred to a four-year college.

Nationally, while the proportion of degree-seeking students at community colleges who graduate within six years is about 40 percent, the six-year completion rate for non-degree-seeking students is about 24 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, which monitors this information.

(Next page: Tracking ‘skill builder’ students)

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