College completion rates lag for students at for-profit, community colleges

While students’ six-year college completion rates are increasing overall, completion rates vary widely by institution type, reports NPR. Forty-two percent of students who started college in the fall of 2012 had not graduated six years later, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That marks a 1.5 percentage point increase over last year’s completion rate, potentially reflecting colleges’ data-driven efforts to boost retention.

Variation by school type, demographic group

Community colleges and for-profit schools, however, had far lower completion rates: more than 60 percent of students had not earned a degree six years after starting their programs.

The report also showed variation among racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic students had 41 percent and 49.5 percent average six-year completion rates, respectively. Asian students and white students, meanwhile, had average completion rates of 70.3 percent and 67.1 percent, respectively. NPR notes that “Much of that discrepancy is related to where black and Hispanic students tend to go: community colleges and for-profit schools,” which tend to offer fewer resources to support students.

Retention efforts focus on changing student needs

Commenting on latest completion numbers, Doug Shapiro, research director at National Student Clearinghouse, says colleges must adapt to shifting student populations—not only for students’ financial health and job prospects, but also for the longevity of their institutions. With fewer people graduating from high school; enrollment declining; employment holding steady; and more part-time, working adults seeking postsecondary degrees, colleges must adjust their priorities accordingly.

“Every student who drops out is one less student that you have,” says Shapiro. “Institutions are focused on retaining the students that they have because it’s getting harder and harder to find new students.”

Mamie Voight, the vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, calls on colleges to provide more counseling services and grants. Voight also emphasizes the importance of helping students cross the finish line in a timely manner to avoid added costs. “We tell students that college is four years,” Voight says. “That’s what students and families plan for and expect.”

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