College completion rates inch up to 62.2%, their highest level yet

Dive Brief: 

  • The six-year completion rate for undergraduate students who started college in 2015 reached 62.2%, a 1.2 percentage point increase over the prior year’s cohort, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 
  • All starting institution types showed increases in their completion rates, though public colleges saw larger jumps than private ones. Students starting at community colleges had the largest increase, at 1.5 percentage points, followed by those starting at public four-year colleges, with an increase of 1 percentage point. 
  • Completion rates rose for White, Latinx and Black students, with the 1.9 percentage point increase for Black students the largest gain of all racial and ethnic groups tracked. The completion rate for Asian students remained virtually the same as last year’s figures. 

Dive Insight: 

The new report delivers good news to the higher ed sector, and especially for community colleges, which have been battered by pandemic-related costs and enrollment challenges since the health crisis began. It comes two weeks after a separate Clearinghouse report found transfer enrollment appears to have steadied in fall 2021 after plummeting the year before. It also marks the third straight year that six-year completion rates have exceeded 60%. 

“Students who started college six years ago have been completing degrees and certificates at higher rates in recent years,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement. “This broad measure of performance for higher education as a nationwide system, including transfers among two- and four-year schools of all kinds, shows long-term improvements for students and colleges alike.” 

However, Shapiro added a dash of uncertainty about whether the observed gains will continue by pointing out they largely took hold before the pandemic broke out.

Completion rates for the 2015 cohort diverged depending on the institution type. Four-year private nonprofits had the highest completion rate, at 78.3%, followed by four-year public colleges, at 69%. Despite posting the biggest year-to-year gains, community colleges had the lowest completion rate, 42.2%, while four-year for-profits had a slightly better rate of 46.4%. 

Of 46 states with sufficient data for reporting, 32 had a gain of at least 1 percentage point in their six-year completion rates. Last year, only 12 states saw that level of increase. 

Similarly, completion rates dropped by 1 percentage point in only three states for the 2015 cohort, compared to eight states the previous year. 

Adult students, which the report considers aged 24 and older, saw particularly large increases. The 2015 cohort for that age group had a completion rate of 50.5%, 2.5 percentage points higher than the year before. However, this group of students comprises only 8.6% of the 2015 cohort. 

Completion rates also grew for traditional-age students, which the report defines as learners aged 20 and younger when they first start college. The 2015 cohort’s completion rate was 64.1%, which was 0.9 percentage points higher than the year before. 

Delayed entry students, or those who were 21 to 24 when they began college, saw completion rates rise from 52.8% for the 2014 cohort to 54.2% the next year. 

The report covers undergraduates who entered college in fall 2015 and completed their credentials by June 2021.

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