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National College Completion Rates Continue to Decline

Great Recession’s Impact Felt in Fall 2009 College Freshman Class for Every Institution Type and Student Age Group

HERNDON, VA, NOV. 17, 2015 – The National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™ released today its fourth annual college completions report, which clearly shows that even though the Great Recession ended June 2009, its effects greatly impacted the fall 2009 college freshman class. Unlike last year’s report, declines in graduation were seen not only in the overall national completion rate, but also every institution type and all student subgroups.

Out of 2.9 million students enrolled, the overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2009 in-coming students was 52.9 percent, a decline of 2.1 percentage points from the fall 2008 cohort. This is twice the rate of the decline observed in last year’s report. Combined with a small decrease in the percent of students who were still enrolled in their sixth year, the rate at which students were no longer enrolled, without having earned a degree, increased 2.7 percentage points, from 30.3 percent to 33 percent.

“Without the considerable efforts to improve student outcomes at the institutional, state, and federal levels, these declines could have been even worse given the demographic and economic forces at play,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “This year’s completions report helps practitioners and policymakers to identify where opportunities for improvement may be the greatest.”

The report examines postsecondary outcomes for students in three age groups: those who began postsecondary education immediately after high school (age 20 or younger); those who delayed entering college for a few years (over age 20 through 24); and adult learners (over 24). Older students experienced some of the largest drops in completion rates. The decline in completion rates for the delayed entry group was 4.7 percentage points (from 38.3 to 33.6 percent). Adult learners experienced a decrease of 2.9 percentage points (from 42.1 to 39.2 percent) compared to a decrease of only 0.75 percentage points for the age 20 or younger group (from 59.3 to 58.6 percent).

Completion rates declined at both public and private four-year institutions. It decreased 1.7 percentage for students who started at four-year public institutions, dropping to 61.2 percent from 62.9 percent, and 2.1 percentage points for students who started in four-year private nonprofit institutions, where it fell from 73.6 percent to 71.5 percent. The largest drop was in the completion rate for students who started in four-year, private for-profit institutions: from 38.4 to 32.8 percent.

Despite the fall 2009 cohort’s lower rate of completion, the total number of graduates six years later increased by about 71,000 students because the in-coming class was much larger (eight percent) than that of fall 2008. Most of the increase in enrollment occurred among delayed entry students (20 percent) and adult learners (23 percent), rather than among traditional-age students (7 percent).

Among students who started college at two-year institutions, the total completion rate declined from 39.1 percent to 38.1 percent, counting completions that may have occurred at either a two-year or a four-year institution. The decline, however, was almost entirely among students completing at transfer institutions (0.9 percentage point drop). Among all two-year starters, 15.1 percent had completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, down from 16.2 percent for fall 2008 students.

The 2015 report’s supplemental feature examined eight-year outcomes for the fall 2007 cohort, following their enrollment patterns through spring 2015. With the two extra years, a total of 45 percent of the 2007 cohort completed at their starting institution and an additional 16.8 percent completed at a different institution, for a combined completion rate of 61.8 percent nationally. This represents a 5.8 percentage point increase in total completions compared to the six‐year rate for the same entering cohort.

Other key findings:

  • 175,000 more older students enrolled in fall 2009 than in fall 2008
  • The share of students enrolled at less than full-time enrollment status increased a half of a percentage point
  • An additional 153,000 students from the 2009 cohort left college without a credential or continuing enrollment in the sixth year

To read the 2015 national college completions report, click here.

About the National Student Clearinghouse®
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 about the Clearinghouse Research Center, visit http://research.studentclearinghouse.org.

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