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A First Look at How the Great Recession Affected College Completions

Overall Completion Rate Fell, But Decline was Concentrated among Nontraditional Age Students, Says National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center

HERNDON, VA, NOV. 18, 2014 – In the first study of graduation rates for students who began college during the Great Recession, the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center found that while a larger number of students enrolled during this period, completion rates declined. The largest decrease in completions was among nontraditional age students.

In its third annual completions report, the Research Center studied students who entered college in fall 2008, the peak of the recession. This student population was 12 percent larger than the one that entered college in fall 2007 (approximately 2.7 million and 2.4 million, respectively). There was a 20 percent increase in the number of older students (over age 20) and a larger share of those enrolled less than full time (1.5 percentage points more than in fall 2007). In addition, the share of students enrolled in community colleges and four-year private for-profit institutions increased one percentage point each.

The overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2008 cohort was 55.0 percent, a decrease from the 56.1 percent completion rate for the fall 2007 cohort. Most of the decline occurred in the rate at which students graduated from their starting institution (42.1 percent for fall 2008 vs. 43.0 percent for fall 2007). There was almost no change in the rate at which students transferred and completed at a different institution.

Some student populations experienced larger declines in their attainment rates, while others remained the same or actually increased.

  • Nontraditional age students saw the largest decline. The completion rate fell 2.6 percentage points for those who waited a few years before entering college (age 21 through 24) and 1.4 percentage points for adult learners (age over 24)
  • Traditional-age students experienced a 0.5 percent decline, attributable mostly to a small shift away from full-time enrollment
  • Completion rates held steady for traditional-age students who enrolled exclusively full-time, and increased slightly, by 0.3 percentage points, for those who combined full-time and part-time enrollments
  • The total completion rate for students who started in two-year public institutions declined 0.7 percentage points (39.1 percent for fall 2008 vs 39.8 percent for fall 2007)
  • There was a larger decline in the transfer pathway from two-year to four-year colleges: 16.2 percent of the students who started at community colleges went on to graduate from four-year schools, compared to 17.2 percent of the fall 2007 cohort
  • The completion rate for those who started in four-year private nonprofit institutions increased 0.7 percentage points. However, this group’s share of the total cohort for fall 2008 was 1.2 percentage points smaller than for fall 2007

The number of students entering four-year private for-profit institutions increased substantially, up 35 percent from fall 2007, while their completion rate declined four percentage points. The decline may be due to the primarily older student population, who were drawn into higher education by the poor economy and may have not been seeking degrees at all. Once the economy improved, many of these students may have left school to re-enter the workforce.

“For many of the students who entered college during the Great Recession, especially those who were unemployed, a college degree was seen as a buffer against hard times. If you didn’t have a job to go to, it made sense to go to college,” explained Dr. Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Today’s results show that getting more students to enroll is only the first step to increasing the number of Americans with a postsecondary credential. We also need to do more to help them stay enrolled to the finish line.”

The national Signature Report 8 is based on student-level data made available to the Clearinghouse by its more than 3,600 participating colleges and universities, which tracks 96 percent of college enrollments nationwide. State-level college completion rates will be released in early 2015.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

To learn more, visit http://research.studentclearinghouse.org.

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