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Dip in college completion rates

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​A new National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) report shows a decline in college completion across all higher education sectors.

Unlike last year’s annual student attainment rate report from the NSC Research Center, declines in graduation were seen not only in the overall national completion rate but also at every institution type and all student subgroups.

Among students who started college at public two-year institutions, the total completion rate declined from 39.1 percent to 38.1 percent, counting completions that may have occurred at either a two-year or a four-year institution. The decline, however, was almost entirely among students completing at transfer institutions (0.9 percentage point drop). Among all two-year starters, 15.1 percent had completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, down from 16.2 percent for fall 2008 students.

“This decline occurred mostly in the completion rate of students who received their degree from a four-year institution without first obtaining a two-year degree,” the report said.

Larger picture

Out of 2.9 million students enrolled, the overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2009 in-coming students was 52.9 percent, a decline of 2.1 percentage points from the fall 2008 cohort. This is twice the rate of the decline reported last year. Combined with a small decrease in the percent of students who were still enrolled in their sixth year, the rate at which students were no longer enrolled, without having earned a degree, increased 2.7 percentage points, from 30.3 percent to 33 percent.

The slump may have been worse if not for the efforts of colleges and advocates to improve student success, researchers noted.

“Without the considerable efforts to improve student outcomes at the institutional, state, and federal levels, these declines could have been even worse given the demographic and economic forces at play,” said Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the NSC Research Center. “This year’s completions report helps practitioners and policymakers to identify where opportunities for improvement may be the greatest.”

To that end, the findings do emphasize a need for developing measures that capture the complexity of students’ postsecondary pathways, NSC noted.

"We have long known that these pathways increasingly involve student mobility across institutional and state lines, part‐time and mixed enrollment, a gender gap that varies by age, and entry into postsecondary institutions at a variety of different ages and life circumstances," the report said. "Developing new measures of student success outcomes is essential if we are to inform and improve public and institutional policies in ways that acknowledge and respond to today’s student pathways."

Older students leave

The report examined postsecondary outcomes for students in three age groups: those who began postsecondary education immediately after high school (age 20 or younger); those who delayed entering college for a few years (over age 20 through 24); and adult learners (over 24).

Older students experienced some of the largest drops in completion rates. The decline in completion rates for the delayed entry group was 4.7 percentage points (from 38.3 to 33.6 percent). Adult learners experienced a decrease of 2.9 percentage points (from 42.1 to 39.2 percent), compared to a decrease of only 0.75 percentage points for the age 20 or younger group (from 59.3 to 58.6 percent).

Other key findings:

  • 175,000 more older students enrolled in fall 2009 than in fall 2008
  • The share of students enrolled less than full-time increased a half of a percentage point
  • An additional 153,000 students from the 2009 cohort left college without a credential or continuing enrollment in the sixth year