Six-year college completion rates remained stalled this year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The overall completion rate across higher ed for the matriculating cohort of 2017 was 62.2 percent, a 0.1 percent decrease from the 2016 cohort. It’s the third consecutive year of sluggish completion rates after half a decade of slow but steady growth.
Completion fell slightly at both public and private four-year institutions—by 0.6 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively—but rose by 0.3 percent at community colleges. Completion rates fell by 1.6 percent at for-profit four-year colleges, undoing two years of gains.
Doug Shapiro, director of the NSCRC, said the data bode poorly for the sector, especially public universities.
“This is more bad news for four-year colleges,” he said. “Earlier this year we saw enrollment declines for four-year colleges, and now we’re seeing completion declines.”
Still, completion rates rose in over half of the 50 states, with increases of more than 1 percent in nine of them; only two, Idaho and New Mexico, saw increases over 2 percent. Completion declined by more than 1 percent in only five states, with the largest drops in Rhode Island (2.3 percent) and Washington (2.1 percent).
Shapiro said the COVID-19 pandemic loomed large over the multiyear stasis that started with the 2015 cohort, adding that the data suggest it was not just a temporary factor. Of the nearly 38 percent of students in the 2017 cohort who did not earn a degree in six years, only 8 percent are still enrolled; the other 30 percent have dropped out entirely.
“I think we’re continuing to see the effects of the pandemic in these numbers, but we’re not saying, ‘Well, the pandemic seems to have slowed these students down and they’re likely to take longer to finish,’” he said. “Rather, more students are stopping out altogether.”
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.
“Institutions invested heavily in student success, and that showed in the numbers; rates had grown across the board for a number of years,” Shapiro said.
The plateau that started three years ago reflects the heightened pressures higher ed is facing as a whole, he said, from slashed budgets to ballooning student debt.
“There’s more on the student side as well—concerns about the value of the degrees they’re pursuing, and the job market turbulence that makes employability more uncertain,” he said. “That makes it harder for students who are struggling to stay in.”
Bridget Burns, CEO of the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of institutions whose goals include higher completion rates, expressed more optimism, noting that the data show that investing in student success boosts resilience during times of enrollment crisis.
“Given the complete upending of our world for a couple of years, I’m surprised it’s not a much bigger decline,” she said. “The fact that it’s flat is a testament to this work.”
Many long-standing gaps in completion rates remained largely unchanged this year.
Over 70 percent of female students earned a degree in six years, compared to 63 percent of male students, for instance—a gap that has inspired hand-wringing and proposed solutions but shown little sign of shrinking. In fact, the gender disparity has only grown; this year’s nearly 8 percent gap is the widest since 2008, Shapiro said.
Although completion rates declined for students of all ethnic backgrounds, racial disparities continued to dominate the completion data. Asian students had a 74.8 percent completion rate, the highest of any group, followed by white students at 68.5 percent—and then, much farther down, Hispanic, Native American and Black students, all hovering between 43 and 50 percent.
Differences among types of institutions have remained fairly constant as well, with the highest completion rates at private, nonprofit four-year universities (77.5 percent), followed by public four-years (67.4 percent), with both for-profit and community colleges trailing significantly, at 46 percent and 43.4 percent, respectively.
Another constant: students who start and end as full-time enrollees are far more likely to graduate than those who are exclusively part-time. This is perhaps the most glaring completion gap; the full-time student completion rate is 84.3 percent, nearly 65 percent higher than the two-year completion rate (20 percent) and well above the 51.1 percent completion rate for students who spent time at both four- and two-year institutions.
Ambitious Goals, Little Progress
Burns said there’s no “silver bullet” or national initiative to close such gaps. Instead, she hopes the next chapter of student success investment is centered around a recognition that support means very different things for students of different identities.
“Students are not a monolith, and student success is not a blunt instrument,” she said. “I’ve seen many institutions recognize that, but not enough are really addressing the disparities at play head-on.”
Charles Ansell, vice president for research, policy and advocacy at Complete College America, said this year’s completion data didn’t surprise him, and he expects trends to resume their upward creep in the near future.
“With the pandemic evening out the positive results from student success reforms, these numbers staying flat totally makes sense,” he said. “There’s an optimistic way to view this, I think, which is that once the pandemic’s effects fade, the numbers will likely start to go up again.”
But Ansell added that a return to the incremental growth from before the pandemic will not be enough to get out of the rut; he’s been frustrated by seeing the ambitious commitments from state governments and foundations go unfulfilled because of a lack of financial support.
While “unfunded mandates” from policymakers and aspirational institutional goalposts were helpful in pushing slow but steady completion gains from 2015 to 2020, Ansell said that actually meeting those goals requires more concrete, long-term monetary support.
“If we want to meet ambitious completion goals, we need to seriously invest in completion,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”