At a time when policymakers are struggling to increase the proportion of Americans with college and university degrees, more than 31 million people have already accumulated credits but quit without graduating, a new report shows.

And while a third of those left after as little as a single term, about 21 million spent more than a term on campus before giving up on their higher educations, according to the research, from the National Student Clearinghouse. More than four million have at least two years of college under their belts, which they earned 10 years ago or less.

That means they’re close to getting at least associate’s degrees or certificates.

The figures show the huge number of Americans who start college but never finish, though the report does not include the reasons this is happening. Other research cites the high cost of tuition, lack of support services, and students’ competing obligations, such as families and jobs, among other obstacles.

“These students represent a vast resource of untapped educational capital.” Joni Finney, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education

About a third started and ended their higher educations within the same year, but another third remained enrolled for two to three years before dropping out and yet another third spent as much as four to six years in college without ever getting a degree.

They represent a potential reservoir of degree-holders to universities and colleges that reach out to them, accept their credits, and help them finish, the report said.

“These students represent a vast resource of untapped educational capital that the country can ill afford to overlook,” said Joni Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “Ensuring that students who begin college complete their certificate and degree coursework must be a national priority.”

Colleges and universities in some states are already starting to go after this market.

In Florida, for instance, 11 public and private higher-education institutions this fall will offer more than 50 online programs leading to degrees and certificates for that state’s estimated 2.2 million residents who have started but never finished college.

The program, called Complete Florida, will make teams of advisors available to help these students stay on track this time. It will also let people transform their relevant work experience into academic credit.

[Cross-posted at the Hechinger Report]

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Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.