College completion rates highest in recent years, report finds

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has found that 62.2 percent of first-time students who started college in fall 2015 graduated by spring 2021, the highest six-year completion rate in recent years. According to the Lumina Foundation, the report is perhaps the last snapshot of higher education trends before COVID-19, as most of the 2015 cohort graduated before 2020. 

“What we can learn from this cohort is going to be really important, because it’s going to be the cohort we look back to, comparing back to an age of stable inequality, versus severely disrupted and impacted inequality,” Dr. Stell M. Flores, an associate professor and director at the University of Texas’s Education Research Center, explained to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. 

Variation across institution types

According to Higher Ed Dive, the 2015 cohort’s completion rate is up 1.2 percentage points over that of the 2014 cohort and marks the third straight year of completion rates above 60 percent.

Compared with the year prior, completion rates rose across all institution types, including community colleges, public colleges, private nonprofit colleges, and private for-profit colleges. Students who started at community college had the largest completion rate increase, at 1.5 percentage points. However, compared with students at other types of institutions, they still had the lowest completion rate, at 42.2 percent. In contrast, four-year private nonprofit and public universities had the highest completion rate at 78.3 percent and 69 percent, respectively. The rate at four-year for-profit colleges was 46.4 percent. 

Especially large increase for Black students

The report also showed racial disparities in college completion. “Reflecting other societal and educational inequities, Black, Hispanic, and Native American students are less likely to complete college degrees than white and Asian students,” Amy Feygin, principal researcher at American Institutes for Research, told Inside Higher Ed. However, Black students had the largest completion rate increase—nearly two percentage points—among all racial and ethnic groups studied. White and Latinx students’ completion rates also increased, while Asian students’ completion rates held steady.

Analyzing completion by age group, researchers found that adult learners (students who first entered college at age 24 and older) had the highest completion rate increase, although traditional college-age students (students who entered college at 20 years old or younger) continued to have higher completion rates than older students.

For Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “This broad measure of performance for higher education as a nationwide system…shows long-term improvements for students and colleges alike.” The Lumina Foundation attributes the results to several factors, including “more students starting their educational journeys at bachelor’s-granting institutions, and, possibly, better academic and financial support for students, especially students of color.”

A dip on the horizon?

Feygin, however, predicts that completion rates will soon trend downward, reflecting pandemic-related enrollment loss, especially among Black and Native American male students.

The report also noted worrisome signs, including the high rate of students “stopping out” (temporarily leaving school) and withdrawing from college permanently due to economic and academic hurdles. Increasing investments in financial, academic, and basic needs support is, according to Feygin, the best way to mitigate these downward trends.

Topics in this story

Next Up

‘Put the money to good use’: Revisiting MacKenzie Scott’s transformative unrestricted gifts to HBCUs

More than a year after MacKenzie Scott donated $560 million in unrestricted funds to 23 public and private historically Black colleges and universities, the gifts have added resilience to minority-serving institutions confronting existential threats.