New Data, No Better Results

First available information from more-recent cohort of entering college students finds graduation rates stagnant, even receding.
December 2, 2010

Among the many knocks against the various tools that the federal government has for tracking graduation rates is that even longitudinal surveys that follow students over long periods of time and across institutions take so long to complete that by the time they produce usable numbers, they may be outdated. That criticism is often raised by college leaders when they're on the defensive about low graduation rates, as if to imply that newer numbers might look better.

But Wednesday brought the release by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics of the first data on persistence and graduation of the new cohort of students tracked by the Beginning Postsecondary Students Survey, which provides some of the best available data on student outcomes as seen from a student perspective (rather than a college-specific angle like the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). And while it has been common for people to question the continuing relevance of data about students who entered college in 1995-96, the last cohort of students in the BPS, the graduation rate numbers for the new cohort -- which entered in 2003-4 -- show little if any progress.

Just under half of all students who entered college for the first time in the 2003-4 academic year had earned a degree or certificate from some postsecondary institution within six years, by the end of the 2008-9 academic year. As seen in the table below, 30.7 percent had earned a bachelor's degree (either from their original institution or from another), while 9.3 percent had earned an associate degree and 9.4 percent a certificate. Another 15 percent were still enrolled in either a two- or a four-year institution.

The bachelor's degree attainment is slightly better than it was for the 1995-6 cohort, but the overall persistence and completion rate is marginally lower.

6-Year Attainment Rates for 2 Cohorts of College Students

Status After Six Years 1995-6 entering cohort 2003-4 entering cohort
Earned Bachelor's 28.8 30.7
Earned Associate 10.0 9.3
Earned Certificate 12.0 9.4
Still Enrolled, 4-Year 8.8 7.1
Still Enrolled, 2-Year 5.6 7.9
Not Enrolled 34.8 35.5

Source: NCES

As is usually the case with measures of student outcomes, there is great variation depending on the types of institutions that students attend and the characteristics they have. Among the highlights:

  • Students who started at two-year colleges in 2003-4 were far less likely to have earned degrees of any type within six years than were those who started at four-year institutions. Eight percent of those who began at two-year colleges had received a certificate, 14 percent had received an associate degree, and 12 percent had earned a bachelor's degree within six years; of students who began at four-year colleges, 58 percent had received a bachelor’s degree, 5 percent an associate degree, and 2 percent a certificate.
  • Students who had never transferred had better outcomes than did those who had, but the margin was relatively narrow. Nearly 33 percent of non-transfer students who entered college for the first time in 2003-4 had earned a bachelor's degree within six years, compared to 26.6 percent of those who had transferred, but the non-transferring students were also less likely to still be enrolled six years out: a full 40 percent were not in college, compared to just 25.7 percent of transferring students.
  • Men and women graduated at roughly comparable rates, but there were significant differences by race: 45.5 percent of Asian students had earned bachelor's degrees in six years, compared to 36.4 percent of white students, 16.9 percent of Hispanic, 16.7 percent of black, and 27.3 percent of mixed race students.

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