US college completion rate climbs to 58%

Education Dive

Dive Brief:

  • Student completion rates are up at two- and four-year U.S. colleges, regardless of gender, race and ethnicity, or age, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The organization analyzed six-year completion rates for first-time, degree-seeking students who enrolled in college in the fall of 2012.
  • The overall completion rate for the 2012 cohort was 58.3%, growing by 1.5 percentage points compared to the fall 2011 cohort. This marks the highest the completion rate since the fall 2006 cohort, though the 2012 cohort’s gains are smaller than the previous year’s improvements.
  • Growth in Hispanic and black students’ completion rates outpaced that of white and Asian students’ at four-year public institutions, the report found. Black students’ completion rates rose by 1.6 percentage points to 47.6%, while Hispanic students’ rate grew by 1.7 percentage points to 57.4%.

Dive Insight:

Although completion rates are rising across the board, wide differences among several groups persist. Notably, fewer than half of black and Hispanic students completed within six years, compared to 67.1% of white students and 70.3% of Asian students. Similarly, student completion rates who started at two-year institutions (39.4%) are far lower than those starting at four-year institutions (67.8%). It’s worth noting the two-year rate includes individuals who completed their degree at a different institution.

High attrition rates can generate huge costs for both college dropouts and taxpayers. During fiscal years 2015 and 2016, 3.9 million undergraduates dropped out with federal loans, leaving many with debt and no related credential, according to The Hechinger Report. More than 900,000 of those came from for-profit colleges.

Many students who don’t complete a degree struggle to pay back their federal loans. Only about one-third of such students entering repayment during the 2010-11 or 2011-12 academic years had paid off at least $1 of their loan principal within three years, compared to 60% of those who had earned a degree or certificate, according to a 2017 report by the College Board.

Institutions not only lose out on the potential tuition revenue from a college dropout, but they also must come up with the funds to recruit more students to fill empty slots. This can add up, with public colleges spending roughly $540 and private institutions $2,360 to recruit one undergraduate student, according to a poll of 126 large nonprofit, four-year institutions by the consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

To combat the issue, some institutions have been testing new tactics to better improve retention and graduation rates.

Providing grants to low-income students is one approach that has helped bring students across the finish line, according to Third Way, an education research group. At Georgia State University, juniors and seniors who can’t register for classes due to financial issues may be eligible for an emergency grant of up to $2,000. Of students who received the grants, 82% had either graduated or were still attending the college a year later.

Other institutions have been turning to more intensive supports. The City University of New York’s ASAP program, for example, provides career counseling, personal advising, and financial and academic help for some of its associate degree students. One recent study found 40% of students in the program graduated with an associate degree within three years, achieving nearly double the rate of similar students who weren’t in the program.

While these approaches may require big upfront investments — a potential barrier to cash-strapped institutions — many of them lower the cost per degree in the long term, according to Third Way.

Other strategies that have seen promising results include opening up more seats for underserved students in high-performing colleges, using data to better direct advising efforts and improving instruction through evidence-based methods.