College Completion Rates on the Rise

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found the six-year college completion rate hit 62.2 percent, but experts say it’s still too low for underserved students.

February 3, 2022
This year marked the third year in a row that the national completion rate exceeded 60 percent.
(skodonnell/Getty Images)

The national six-year completion rate for students who started college in 2015 reached 62.2 percent, according to a new report out today from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

That’s an increase of 1.2 percentage points over the fall 2014 cohort and 1.5 percentage points over the 2013 cohort.

“Students who started college six years ago have been completing degrees and certificates at higher rates than 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, gains that took hold mostly in the pre-pandemic period.”

This year marked the third year in a row that the national completion rate exceeded 60 percent.

The report tracks enrollment and completion outcomes for all students who entered higher education for the first time in fall 2015, enrolling full-time or part-time at more than 3,600 two-year and four-year institutions, through June 2021.

The increased completion rates held across all types of institutions. The largest gain was among students at community colleges, who showed a completion rate of 42.2 percent, a 1.5-percentage-point increase from 2014’s cohort. The gain comes after a 0.5-percentage-point drop last year; two-year colleges were the only institution type to see a decline.

The second-largest gain was among students at public four-year institutions, whose completion rate was 69 percent, or one percentage point higher than last year’s. Private nonprofit four-year institutions had the highest completion rate, at 78.3 percent, but that was only 0.4 percent higher than last year’s 77.9 percent.

Of the 2,373,877 students in the 2015 cohort, 47 percent started college at public four-year institutions, 31 percent at public two-year institutions and 20.3 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions.

Amy Feygin, principal researcher of human services, education systems and policy for the American Institutes for Research, which is one of the network leads for the College Completion Network, said despite the increase, low college completion rates remain a concern.

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“Degree completion rates were quite low, but rising, before the pandemic,” Feygin said. “However, completion rates are likely to decline in the coming years, based on enrollment trends during the pandemic. That is because enrollment declines represent a combination of fewer students enrolling for the first time and fewer students continuing enrollment.”

Feygin noted that undergraduate enrollment is down at all levels, but declines are largest in community colleges and particularly among Black and Native American male students. A report in December from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found a decline in college enrollment among high school graduates—especially the most underserved.

The new report found public two-year institutions have the highest percentage of students who started yet failed to complete their degrees in six years, at 45.2 percent. At private, for-profit four-year institutions, 42.7 percent of students stopped out, 22.3 percent of students at public four-year institutions did and 16.1 percent of those who enrolled in private nonprofits did so.

Feygin said students struggle to complete college for many reasons, including insufficient preparation and competing responsibilities such as childcare and full-time work.

“They may be diverted to developmental education, and we know that a low percentage of students in developmental education go on to complete degrees,” Feygin said. “But in addition to academics, many students struggle to meet basic needs. It is hard for students to focus on their studies when they are hungry, when they have unstable housing and when they are facing mental health challenges.”

While the high cost of college is a major barrier to access and completion, many students also struggle to find affordable housing, transportation, childcare, academic support and more, said Catherine Brown, senior director of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit organization that works to make higher education more available and affordable. And students who work to put themselves through college often take longer to attain a degree.

“Even minor costs, like purchasing a bus ticket to get to campus, can stand in the way of a low-income student pursuing a degree,” Brown said. “The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges, as many students have had to provide additional support for their children and families and confronted more severe economic disruptions and health challenges than usual.”

The report found completion rates increased for white, Black and Latinx students this year, with the largest jump for Black students, whose completion rate increased 1.9 percentage points to 44.3 percent.

Between 2013 and 2015, Black student completion rates increased the most, by two percentage points, the report found, followed by the rate of Asian students, whose completion rate increased 1.7 percentage points. The increase among white students was one percentage point, and among Latinx students it was 0.66 percent.

Shapiro said the biggest surprise in the report is the large completion-rate increase for Black students.

“It is certainly very good news for a population that has had some of the lowest completion rates for years,” Shapiro said. “Much of it seems to be attributable to a shift in the institutions attended by the entering cohort of Black students.”

However, both Feygin and Brown expressed concern that some marginalized groups still aren’t completing college at the same rate as white students.

“Reflecting other societal and educational inequities, Black, Hispanic and Native American students are less likely to complete college degrees than white and Asian students,” Feygin said.

The report shows six-year completion rates increased in 32 out of the 46 states that had sufficient data. Last year, only 12 out of 46 states reported an increase in six-year completion rates. Ranking at the top this year were Vermont and Rhode Island, with a six-year completion rate of 74.4 percent each. The states with the lowest six-year completion rate were Alaska at 35.2 percent and Nevada at 44.5 percent.

For students who started at community colleges, completion rates increased by at least one percentage point in 26 out of 42 states. Some states, including Arkansas, Montana and Virginia, saw higher-than-average rates of increase for community college starters, recovering from dips in the previous year.

Feygin said the best way to support students in completing college is to combine multiple academic, financial and basic needs supports. She pointed toward the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs initiative, a program for associate-degree students designed to help them earn their degrees as quickly as possible.

Feygin also noted that tutoring and mentoring programs provide opportunities for students to engage one-on-one or in small group settings with advisers and faculty who can help with time management, study skills and navigating the various, and often complex, college systems.

“The challenge is that such supports are resource-intensive and may be difficult for some colleges to scale,” Feygin said.

Shapiro said the data from the report are hopeful, and he said they make last year’s flat growth look like a brief pause in the longer-term trend of steady improvement.

“The fact that completion rates are improving over time shows that students, their advisers and their colleges alike have been making long-term adjustments in all the different factors that go into making sure that everyone who starts college has what they need to finish,” Shapiro said.

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