College completion rates stall for third year in a row

The six-year postsecondary completion rate has stagnated at 62.2%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s (NSCRC) 2023 Completing College report. The twelfth in the long-running annual series, the report tracks completion rates as of June 2023, both nationally and by state, for the more than 2.4 million students who enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time in the fall of 2017.

The six-year postsecondary completion rate has remained virtually unchanged since the 2015 entering cohort. Prior to 2015, the completion rate rose by 9.3 percentage points over six years, starting with the 2009 cohort.

More than just ‘slower progress during the pandemic’

The NSCRC’s Completing College series looks at the entirety of the higher education system, tracking the postsecondary completion rate of two- and four-year college students who enroll full-time or part time, including those who complete their programs after transferring to other institutions or who re-enroll after stopping out.

Of the approximately 2.4 million students who began college in 2017, around 710,000 have stopped out, meaning they do not hold a college degree, nor are they enrolled at any postsecondary institution, Jennifer Causey, senior research associate at NSCRC tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

“The rising risk of leaving college short of a diploma could be troubling news for students contemplating bachelor’s degree programs today,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC, said in a statement. Although the 2017 cohort attended college during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shapiro explains, “not only have fewer of the 2017 starters completed as of 2023, but the data also show fewer still enrolled, suggesting that this is more than just a matter of slower progress during the pandemic years.”

Exploring the data

Across the 2017 cohort, all four-year sectors, including public for-profit (-1.6 percentage points) and public nonprofit institutions (-0.6 percentage points), saw small declines in completion rates, which fell to 46% and 67.4%, respectively. Private nonprofit institutions had the highest completion rates at 77.5%. Community colleges were the only postsecondary institutions to see completion rates increase—by 0.3 percentage point to 43.4%. Their rates have been rising steadily since the 2014 entering cohort, Higher Ed Dive reports.

Looking at demographic data, the report shows students across all races/ethnicities experiencing stagnant or declining completion rates, with students identifying as Native American (-2.0 percentage points) and Black (-0.4 percentage points) seeing the largest decreases. The declines in Black and Latine student completion rates were concentrated mainly at public four-year institutions; completion rates for Black and Latine students enrolled at community colleges grew. Overall, Native American, Black, and Latine students have six-year college completion levels below the national average.

The completion rate for men in the 2017 cohort was 58.4%, compared to 65.6% for women. That 7.2 percentage point gender gap is the largest it has been since 2008, when the report began. Although adult students older than 24 experienced increases in their completion rates, they still lagged behind students who were 20 or younger, who nevertheless saw their completion rates decline, as well.

More students are stopping out

The 2023 Completing College report also tracked the eight-year completion rates of students who entered postsecondary education in the fall of 2015. The 2015 cohort’s eight-year completion rate (64.7%) fell slightly compared to the 2014 cohort (65.2%). Just 2.4% of the 2015 cohort completed their postsecondary programs in their seventh or eighth year.

“For these longtime completers, that’s the lowest rate that we’ve seen in the past five cohorts,” Shapiro said. “What we see is that more students are stopping out altogether.”

The six- and eight-year completion data reveals an “uncomfortable truth” about the rise in the number of some college, no credential adults, the report says. As of July 2021, there were more than 40 million adults in the U.S. who had attended college but did not complete their program, according to a report released this summer by the NSCRC. To reverse these declines, policymakers, employers, and postsecondary institutions need to reinvest in educating communities beyond high school, the report suggests.

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