Decline in College Completion Rates Reverse and Lead to Upward Trajectory for Great Recession Cohorts

HERNDON, VA (Dec. 5, 2016) – According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Signature Report, Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates – Fall 2010 Cohort, recent declines in the overall national six-year completion rates have reversed and are now on an upward trajectory.

The effects of the Great Recession on higher education included enrollment surges, followed by declines in completion rates, for the 2008 and 2009 entering cohorts. Even though each of these cohorts had more students graduating than the prior cohort, completion rates had declined at the national level for every institution type and all student subgroups.

For the fall 2010 cohort, the overall national six-year completion rate rebounded to 54.8 percent, an increase of 1.9 percentage points from the 2009 cohort. This comprehensive rate includes all students, including those enrolling part-time and full-time at all two-year and four-year institutions.

“We can expect this nationwide recovery in college completion rates to continue in upcoming years,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “But the rising tide of outcomes should not lull institutions into complacency. There is still ample room for improvements and campuses should look carefully at their results for specific student populations to find them.”

The fall 2010 cohort’s completion rate resulted in 55,000 more graduates six years later than that for the fall 2009 cohort. Furthermore, increases in completion rates occurred for students in all categories of enrollment intensity (exclusively full-time, exclusively part-time and mixed enrollment). Increases also were observed in completion rates of both traditional-age students and adult-learners.


Key data points:

For students who started at four-year public institutions, the completion rate for the fall 2010 cohort increased 1.2 percentage points to 62.4 percent, compared to that of fall 2009 cohort. The increase was mostly attributable to larger numbers of students graduating from their starting institution.
The total completion rate for two-year starters, regardless of whether the completion occurred at a two-year or four-year institution, increased from 38.1 percent for the fall 2009 cohort to 39.3 percent for 2010 students. Sixteen percent of the two-year starters had completed a degree at a four-year institution by the end of the study period, up from 15.1 percent for the fall 2009 cohort and very close to the completion rate for the fall 2008 cohort, 16.2 percent.
The completion rate for students who started in four-year, private, nonprofit institutions increased to 73.9, from the fall 2009 cohort’s 71.5 percent. Much of the improvement was attributable to older students.
The rate rebounded for those who started in four-year, for-profit institutions, after dramatic declines of the previous two cohorts. In last year’s report, the research showed a 5.6 percentage point decrease for the fall 2009 cohort from that of the previous year, from 38.4 to 32.8 percent. The completion rate went up to 37.1 percent for the fall 2010 cohort.
The share of students who had earned no degree and were no longer enrolled in the final year of the study period decreased by 1.1 percentage points, from 33.0 percent for the fall 2009 cohort to 31.9 percent for the fall 2010 cohort.
The overall completion rate for full-time students starting at four-year institutions (including public, private non-profit and for-profit) was 81.3 percent, if they stayed full-time.
The report also examined eight-year outcomes for the fall 2008 cohort, tracking their enrollment patterns through spring 2016. In the two extra years, an additional 6.4 percent of the cohort completed degrees, mostly after having transferred. The total eight-year completion rate of 61.4 percent included 44.8 percent who completed at their starting institution and 16.6 percent who completed at a transfer institution. Even eight years after starting, 7.2 percent of the cohort were still enrolled and had yet to earn a degree.


About this Signature Report

This Signature Report focuses on the six-year outcomes for students who began postsecondary education in fall 2010, at the end of the Great Recession. Our previous report, published in November 2015, showed a 2.1 percentage point decline in the overall national completion rate from the 2008 cohort (55.0 percent) to the 2009 cohort (52.9 percent).

The cohort examined in this study is made up of first-time degree-seeking students, of any age, who began their postsecondary studies in the fall of 2010. The data for this report were drawn from the StudentTracker® and DegreeVerifySM services, administered by the National Student Clearinghouse®, which tracks 96.7 percent of college enrollments nationwide across all post-secondary institutions, including all institution types: two-year and four-year institutions, public and private institutions, and nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

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