4-year college? Most first-year students do not earn enough credits to graduate on time, report shows

The bachelor’s degree is generally considered a four-year program, but a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) shows how few students adhere to that timeline. NSC finds that just over half of first-time, full-time undergraduates earned 24 or more credits in their first year of college, a pace that would qualify them for financial aid and put them on track to graduate in five years.

Less than one-third of students earned 30 or more credits in their first year, a pace that would allow them to earn an associate degree in two years and a bachelor’s in four. The average full-time student attempted fewer than 27 credits and earned fewer than 22 in their first year, Higher Ed Dive reports.

Related: Graduation rates: Mismatch between 6-year stats and 4-year expectations

Afet Dundar, director of equity in research and analytics at the NSC Research Center and co-author of the report, says if these trends persist, “students will continue to fall behind academically and financially by not completing college as soon as possible.” Already, the number of students with some college but no degree has topped 39 million, and the NSC authors hope the data will provide insight into opportunities to improve completion rates. 

Related: A push to bring adult learners back to complete their degrees >

For the report, researchers analyzed data from 905,689 first-time students from 342 institutions that participate in the NSC’s Postsecondary Data Partnership. Students started their undergraduate certificates, associate degrees, or bachelor’s degrees between the fall 2019 and summer 2020. Although the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the 2019-20 academic year, the research is indicative of years of transcript-level data, Dr. Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Credits earned compared to credits attempted

The report provides data on two metrics: students’ first-year credit completion ratio (CCR), or the ratio of credits earned to credits attempted, and credit accumulation rate (CAR), or the amount of time it takes for students to surpass 12 or 15 credit-hour thresholds each semester. On average, first-time, first-year students earned 76% of the credits they attempted.

That rate varied by factors including race/ethnicity, gender, and college readiness. The highest CCRs for participating first year, first-time students were among non-U.S. citizens or nationals (84.1%), Asian students (83.5%), and white students (79.8%). The lowest CCRs were among American Indian and Alaska Native students (67.8%) and Black students (66.8%). Women completed more of the credits they attempted than men (78.0% compared to 73.4%).

Increasing completion rates

To boost college completion rates, 15 to Finish campaigns, initiated by the Complete College America alliance, advise first-year students to take 15 credits per semester so they meet thresholds for an associate degree in two years and a bachelor’s degree within four, according to Higher Ed Dive.

Related: States experiment with completion incentives that encourage students to take more credits >

The NSC report also calls on colleges to encourage students to attempt higher credit loads and accumulate more credit hours per semester so they can establish the right pace in their first year. Institutions should invest in structural solutions to equalize credit attainment rates across racial/ethnic and gender groups and close equity gaps revealed in the NSC data. Providing additional academic support that builds students’ credit-earning momentum early in their college careers could also improve degree completion.

Topics in this story

Next Up

9 ways colleges can expand supportive services for first-gen students

A new survey of first-generation college students from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse sheds light on students’ awareness of available supports and which they consider especially crucial.