Although postsecondary enrollment has shown signs of recovery since the onset of the pandemic, several years of enrollment declines have negatively impacted college completion numbers. The number of undergraduate credential earners, which includes students graduating with associate or bachelor’s degrees or certificates, dropped for the first time in a decade, falling by 58,800 people, or 1.6%, in the 2021-22 academic year, compared to the previous year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Much of the decline originated from an unprecedented one-year drop in first-time graduates, which fell by a total of 50,700 people, or 1.9%, compared to the previous year. Among those first-time graduates, associate degree earners experienced a steeper decline than bachelor’s degree earners, falling by 7.6% and 2.4%, respectively. Meanwhile, there was a 9% increase in the number of students who earned a certificate compared with the prior year.
“The pandemic’s impact on higher education has gone beyond the declining numbers of current students and is now showing up as a drop in the annual number of new graduates as well,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Research Center, said in a statement, according to Higher Ed Dive. “This is a setback to those seeking higher postsecondary attainment rates, leaving the nation and many states falling further behind on goals for a highly educated workforce.”
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Among those groups most impacted by declining completion rates, first-time graduates aged 25 and older saw a steeper decline (-4.1%) than college students aged 24 and younger (-1%). The number of non-first-time graduates also fell for the first time in a decade, by 8,100 students or by 0.8%, a decline attributed primarily to a 2.5% drop among bachelor’s degree earners with a prior associate degree.
Declines in associate and bachelor’s degree earners and the rise in certification reflect not only pandemic-induced changes to the education landscape but also demographic shifts and skepticism about the economic value of postsecondary degrees, Inside Higher Ed reports. “There are factors that have been leading us here for many years now,” Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, told Inside Higher Ed. “We’re going to be looking at a new landscape for higher education, and right now we’re in the middle of that transition.”