Undergraduate completion rates stabilize; one third of students don’t finish college in under six years

Bryan Alexander 2023-11-30

How long does it take for a student to finish college?  How many students don’t complete a certificate or undergraduate degree?

Today the National Student Clearinghouse published a new study, looking at students who started post-secondary classes in 2016.

I’ll identify some key findings, then add my reflections.

The leading takeaway is that completion rates have continued at their previous levels, “essentially unchanged since 2015.”  62.2% of students who started in fall 2017 have completed a degree or certificate.  Note that’s within six years, not the two years we normally think of for an associate’s degree or the four for a bachelor’s.

Now, there are differences by institutional type.  Private four-year institutions offer the highest completion rates, followed by state universities. Community colleges for for-profit institutions have the lowest rates, below 50%:

enrollment completion by institutional type _Clearinghouse 2023 November

Overall, 8.5% were still pursuing their classes after 6 years, without completing yet.  And a larger number, 29% of students, stopped out of their education altogether.

The Clearinghouse broke down these numbers by demographics.  In terms of gender women achieved degrees seven points higher than their peer males, the widest gap the Center tracked since 2008.  In terms of race, some groups completed at higher rates than others, with “Native American (-2.0 pp) and Black students (-0.4 pp) posting the largest decreases.”

enrollment completion by race _Clearinghouse 2023 November

There’s an important connection between race and institutional type:

Black students also lost ground, but these losses were concentrated at public four-year institutions, where they fell by 1.5 percentage points (from 50.2% in 2016 to 48.7% in 2017, see Appendix Table 4). Unlike at four-year institutions, Black students at community colleges saw completion rate growth, increasing by 0.5 pp over the previous cohort year. Hispanic students experienced a similar phenomenon, with losses concentrated at public four-year institutions (-1.1 pp; from 57.1% in 2016 to 56.1% in 2017). Like Black students, Hispanic students at community colleges saw slight growth (+0.2 pp).

In terms of age, “[o]lder students continue to make gains, but they still lag behind traditional aged students.”

There were also some differences by states:

While most gains seen at the state-level were small (less than 1 pp), nine states saw gains over 1 percentage point, with Idaho and New Mexico seeing gains over 2 pp (see Figure 4). Five states posted completion rate decreases of over 1 percentage point: Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington.

The national decline of 0.6 percentage points at public four-year institutions was driven by declines in 33 states, with the largest declines in Washington (-3.1 pp), New Hampshire (-2.8 pp), and Connecticut (-2.3 pp). Four states saw rates increase by over 1 percentage point (New Mexico, +2.2 pp; Utah, +1.6 pp; Montana, +1.3 pp; and Idaho, +1.2 pp; see Dashboard Figure 3).

The national growth of community college completion rates was driven by increases in 29 states, with nine states seeing gains of more than 2 percentage points. North Dakota and Idaho saw the largest increases (4.6pp and 3.7 pp respectively). Fifteen states saw community college completion rate declines, but only four states saw declines greater than 1 percentage point. Massachusetts and Oregon saw the largest declines (-2.8 pp and 3.7 pp respectively).

What can we make of all of this?

First, I’m struck by how the COVID pandemic didn’t adjust this cohort’s progress, at least compared to its predecessors.  Or perhaps completion rates would have been higher without the crisis?

Second, this plateau of completion rates marks a change from improving numbers.  As Liam Knox notes,

Before the pandemic, national completion rates had steadily increased for five years, from 53 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in 2020. That boost was spurred in large part by a new commitment to student success services, such as tailored advising for underrepresented student groups and wraparound services for those who are struggling financially.

Third, the number of people not completing degrees within six years (again, more than the expected two or four) is disturbingly high.  As the report concludes, we confront ” a single uncomfortable truth”:

[M]ore than 1 in 3 students today, and in some cases closer to one in two, do not complete a credential within six years of starting college. And with more than three times as many stopped out as there are still enrolled at that point, allowing the cohort an additional two years to complete barely moves the needle any higher. This is true even though, for part-time students pursuing a bachelor’s degree, eight years might be considered a normal time to completion.

I would like to know what proportion of that population holds student loans, and how much when they do.  Given how the labor market generally fails to reward classes without certification, and setting aside students who took classes purely for intellectual gain and who are capable of affording it, this is surely a massive failure for American higher education.

Fourth: I’ve been wondering for a decade about the impacts of peak higher education.  One potential implication is that if many campuses experience a decrease in enrollment quantity, would they decide to invest seriously in improving enrollment quality?  Degree completion could be a good proxy for that strategy, and we might look ahead to see if it improves.

Thanks to the Clearinghouse team for letting me see the study early on.