More Degree Stacking

Number of undergraduates earning a first college credential falls as economy rebounds, according to new National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report.

September 30, 2015

For a second consecutive year, the number of students receiving their first college credential fell, even as the number of students earning a second or third undergraduate credential continued to increase.

That's according to a report on new college graduates the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released today. The center found that the percentage of first-time undergraduates -- not returning students -- accounted for 71 percent of college graduates in 2014, which was down from 75 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, during that same time period, the percentage of degree recipients earning additional undergraduate degrees, or "stacking" credentials, increased from 25 to 29 percent.

But those numbers tell a different story when broken down by age. The number of new college graduates increased 4.4 percent for students under 25, but declined in other age categories -- dropping 6.6 percent since 2010. Over all the report found that between 2010 and 2014, more than eight million students received their first college degree (see chart, below).

"For students over 25, the results are influenced by the recession. In the worst years of the recession, many working adults returned to college or enrolled for the first time," said Jason DeWitt, research manager with the Clearinghouse. "In 2011-12 and down the line we see many of those students completing college degrees and causing increases in degrees, but as the economy improves, fewer older students are enrolling."

And despite the growth in new college graduates under age 25, the nation's demographics point to that trend eventually reversing.

"We know the number of high school grads peaked around 2012, so it's likely the number of new college graduates under 25 will begin to decline," DeWitt said.

That projection could change depending on an increase in access to college institutions, perhaps due to the potential effects of enrollment growth from the free community college movement, or if college completion rates increase, DeWitt said.

And some of the students whom the report counted in 2010 as first-time undergraduate degree earners could be included in 2013-14 numbers of those earning their second or third undergraduate credential.

"As student educational pathways become longer and more complex, it is no longer sufficient simply to count the number of degrees awarded," said Doug Shapiro, the center's executive research director, in a written statement. "Students are increasingly starting with a postsecondary certificate before earning a degree and starting with an associate's before earning a bachelor's degree. Knowing how many actual new college graduates we are producing is critical to national efforts to increase the number of adults with a postsecondary credential."


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