The national six-year college completion rate has stalled, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which collects and analyzes data for 97% of U.S. colleges and universities, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. The data reveal that 62.3% of students who began their first year of college in fall 2016 had completed their bachelor’s degree as of spring 2022.
Although experts say the trend could have been worse considering the impact of the pandemic, the latest completion rate is virtually unchanged from the results of last year’s report (62.2%). In comparison, the completion rate for the 2015 cohort grew 1.2% over the previous year, according to Higher Ed Dive. Of the remaining students in the 2016 cohort who had yet to earn a credential, less than one-quarter remained enrolled; the rest had stopped-out.
Diving into institution type, the research center found that year-over-year completion rates at public four-year colleges fell slightly to 68%, private nonprofit four-year starters fell slightly to 77.8%, and completion rates rose slightly at community colleges (43.1%) and private for-profit four-year institutions (47.6%). The completion rates for Black, Latinx, and white students decreased around half a percentage point compared to the previous year but increased for Asian and Native American students. Additionally, the fall 2016 report showed a 7.1 percentage-point gap in women’s and men’s national completion rates (65.6% and 58.5%, respectively), the widest it’s been since 2008.
While noting that some of these changes reflect a reclassification of some institutions from two-year to four-year colleges, experts say that the goal should be to graduate 100% of students. “If 62.3% are completing, we’re losing four out of ten students—that’s not good,” Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Auburn University in Alabama, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Who are those people, how do they identify, and what are those barriers in place hindering their matriculation?”
Frank Fernandez, assistant professor of higher education leadership and policy at the University of Florida, says the report helps identify students, such as men of color, who need support to improve completion rates. “We have to think about wrap-around services,” he explained to Diverse Issue in Higher Education. “If we’re going to move the needle, we need to have institutions thinking about how we retain these students.”