For the last seven years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) has published data on college completion rates. The seventh report in the “Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates” series was released late last year and looks at the six-year cohort graduation rate for students entering two-year or four-year college programs for the first time in the fall of 2012.
The obvious question—how many first-time college students completed their degree/credential “on time”—is not answered here, despite the obvious implications for persistence and student loan accumulation. Instead, the NSCRC prefers a six-year timeline for completion, even for students initially pursuing a two-year degree.
The fall 2012 cohort consisted of nearly 2.3 million individuals. The largest proportion of students (44.8 percent) were enrolled at four-year public institutions, followed by two-year public institutions (33.2 percent), four-year private nonprofit institutions (19.5 percent), four-year private for-profit institutions (2.3 percent), with two-year private nonprofit and for-profit institutions bringing up the rear (0.1 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively). The highest proportion of students in the cohort were white (48.1 percent), followed by Hispanic (11.0 percent), black (10.1 percent), and Asian (4.0 percent) students. Women comprised 53.4 percent of the cohort. The majority of the students in the fall 2012 study cohort (77.8 percent) were age 20 or younger—“traditional age” students—followed by adult learners (over age twenty-four) at 12.4 percent, and delayed entry students (between age twenty and twenty-four) at 9.1 percent.
The overall national six-year completion rate was 58.3 percent for the cohort. Students who started at four-year institutions were almost twice as likely to complete their degrees than students starting at two-year institutions. Additionally, the stop-out rate (those who had earned no degree or certificate, and had no enrollment activity during the final year of the study period) for students starting at two-year institutions was twice as high as those starting at four-year institutions. One small bright spot is that nearly 16 percent of two-year starters had completed a degree at a four-year institution by the end of the study, although it is impossible to say whether those two-year institutions helped or hindered those completions.
Asian students, both men and women, had the highest completion rates when results were broken out by race and ethnicity and gender, followed by white, Hispanic, and black students. Women had higher completion rates than men across the board. Most disappointingly, black men had the lowest completion rate (36.1 percent) and the highest stop-out rate, with nearly half stopping out by the end of the study period.
Students starting in four-year private nonprofit institutions had the highest overall completion rate (76.1 percent), followed by four-year public (65.7 percent), two-year public (39.2 percent) and four-year private for-profit institutions (37.3 percent). NSCRC reports that completion rates have been on the rise since 2009, and the fall 2012 cohort continues the upward trend.
One could parse the numbers almost endlessly, and the data are interesting at every level. How they play into larger conversations about equity, quality, access, and value of postsecondary education is less immediately apparent.
SOURCES: Doug Shapiro et al., “Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2012 Cohort (Signature Report No. 16),” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (December 2018).