Report: Number of students earning undergraduate credentials fell

In the 2022-23 academic year, 99,200 fewer students received undergraduate credentials or awards—which include certificates and associate and bachelor’s degrees—a 2.8% drop compared to the previous year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. It was the second year in a row the total number of undergraduate credential earners fell, after at least seven years of gradual increases, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Experts say the decline in undergraduate degree attainment was likely the result of COVID-19 pandemic-induced disruptions, which led to enrollment declines, according to Higher Ed Dive.

Despite the overall decline in undergraduate degree completion, more students earned certificates in 2022-23 than in any of the previous 10 years. Growth in certificate earners was driven entirely by students earning their first-ever undergraduate award.

‘The steepest that we’ve ever recorded’

The report, which compares completion trends between first-time earners and students who previously earned a credential, showed both groups as experiencing decreases in degree completion. The number of students earning their first undergraduate credential, who made up 73.3% of all award earners in 2022-23, fell by 73,600 students (-2.8%). The decline in new credential earners is “the steepest that we’ve ever recorded,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse Research Center tells Inside Higher Ed. First-time associate degree earners fell to their lowest level in 10 years, while first-time bachelor’s degree earners decreased to their lowest point since the 2015-16 academic year. 

Fewer certificate or associate degree holders went on to earn additional degrees in 2022-23, and fewer bachelor’s and master’s degree holders returned to earn a certificate. In particular, the drop in associate degree holders who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree was “very bad news,” Shapiro tells Inside Higher Ed, as it may indicate difficulties students faced in transferring from community college to a four-year institution. The community college transfer pathway is “one of the most promising paths to access the bachelor’s degree for lower income and disadvantaged students,” says Shapiro.

The total number of credential earners and first-time earners fell across all racial and ethnic groups. Native Americans and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders experienced the steepest declines, while Latine students saw the smallest decreases, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. All age groups saw declines in undergraduate credential attainment except students ages 20 years and younger.

More certificate earners

Most of the growth in certificate attainment in 2022-23 could be attributed to first-time earners, many of whom were drawn to certificates in trade skills such as mechanic and repair technologies, precision production, and other construction trades.

For the first time, undergraduate award attainment was disaggregated by students under age 18, which can provide data on credential earners through dual enrollment programs, Beatrix Randolph, research analyst at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, tells Inside Higher Ed. The number of students ages 18 and younger who completed a credential grew by 14.1% compared to the previous year, and just over half of the growth in first-time certificate earners came from students under 18. It’s a sign, Randolph says, that students in dual enrollment programs are completing certificates. However, the number of first-time associate degree earners ages 18-20 years had its “first meaningful decline” after stabilizing the previous year and seeing prior years of growth, the report says.

Certificates might prepare students for the job market, but experts hope they can also lead students to more long-term college enrollment. “Let’s be realistic about what people need to jump in their career ladder and then let’s also encourage them to stack that into a degree program,” Shalin Jyotishi, senior adviser on education, labor, and the future of work for New America, tells Inside Higher Ed. “We don’t know what this economy holds, and it’s always going to be in a student’s best interest to continue that education at least through the baccalaureate level. That way, they have full marketability.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

The push to rebrand campus DEI programs

In response to anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) laws, some colleges are finding workarounds that may provide students from underrepresented communities with the resources they need to feel a sense of belonging on campus.