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Plenty of American students are attending college. But how many are graduating? Fortunately, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) released its annual report on college completion rates last week to answer precisely that question.
The report tracks degree-seeking students who first entered college in fall 2011 and determines how many had attained a degree or certificate within six years. Unlike many other measures of completion, which only look at graduation rates at the first institution a student attends and ignore the fortunes of those who transfer, the NSC report tracks students’ outcomes no matter where they obtain their degrees.
Just under half (45%) of students obtain a degree or certificate at the first institution they attend within six years of starting college. Another 12% transfer and complete at a different institution, for a total completion rate of 57%. Six years after first enrolling, 12% of students have not completed college but are still enrolled. Nearly one in three (31%) drop out entirely.
Four-year public and private nonprofit schools have the best completion rates, with 65% and 76% of students starting at these institutions attaining a credential, respectively. That’s good news, given that these schools enroll a majority of the students covered by the NSC analysis.
But completion rates are still abysmal at other categories of institutions. At four-year for-profit colleges, the typical completion rate is 35%. The situation is little better at public (two-year) community colleges, where the completion rate is just 38%.
Here the NSC’s comprehensive methodology, which tracks the outcomes of students who transfer, is critical. Defenders of community colleges often justify the schools’ low graduation rates with the argument that many community college students transfer to a four-year institution and complete their degrees there. While many community college students do transfer, the overall completion rate (38%) is still unimpressive.
In fact, the share of community college students who complete their degrees at a different institution (11%) is lower than the comparable figure for all colleges (12%). Nearly half of community college students (47%) drop out entirely.
There’s plenty to dig through in the NSC report, so I won’t try to cover it all here. Some highlights: completion rates are higher than the average for full-time students and women. Rates are lower for Black and Hispanic students, older students (who started at the age of 21 or over), and those who enroll less than full time.
Pick someone at random from a cohort of first-year college students, and the chances that he will complete within six years are little better than a coin flip. In light of these troubling statistics, should policymakers do more to encourage completion?
Some are trying. The Higher Education Act reauthorization bill introduced earlier this month by Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee includes a few measures aimed at encouraging completion. It offers a $300 Pell Grant bonus to students who take on a greater-than-full-time courseload, which could nudge students to complete faster. The bill also penalizes colleges if their students drop out in the middle of a semester.
However, financial incentives for completion could backfire. If such incentives lead colleges to lower their standards for completion, that could diminish the value of degrees in the labor market. A better approach is tying institutional accountability to outcomes after students leave school, such as loan repayment rates or earnings.
Of course, much of the responsibility to boost completion rates should fall on colleges themselves, since the federal government may (and probably will) fail to act. No one should consider a 57% aggregate college completion rate ideal.
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