6-year college completion rates rise, showing long-term gains for students and colleges

Community colleges outperform other sectors in the Clearinghouse report, but stop-outs are still high.

Six-year college completion rates rose again across all sectors of higher education, but many of those students likely finished their studies prior to 2020 and were not impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data provided by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows the 2015 cohort continuing an upward trend and hitting 62.2%, a slight increase over last year’s report. That is positive news for an industry feeling the pinch of declining enrollments while trying to get students to more quickly gain credentials, although somewhat tempered by what numbers might lie ahead.

“Students who started college six years ago have been completing degrees and certificates at higher rates than in recent years,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “This broad measure of performance for higher education as a nationwide system, including transfers among two- and four-year schools of all kinds, shows long-term improvements for students and colleges alike, gains that took hold mostly in the pre-pandemic period.”

Completion percentage increases were slight across all sectors, ranging from 0.4 to 0.5 at private nonprofit and for-profits to a 1% gain by public four-year institutions. The best performers, at +1.5%, were two-year institutions. That number will be worth watching in the next few cycles as community colleges have been among the hardest hit in terms of enrollment declines over the past two years.

Two-year institutions from the 2015 cohort still saw a large percentage of their starters stop out before completion at just over 45%. That only eclipsed stopped-out students at for-profits (42.7%). The majority of two-year students who made it to completion did so at their own institutions (30.8%). Another 3.2% managed to complete at other two-years, while 8.2% transferred up and finished at four-year schools.

The most successful sector in terms of getting students to complete at the same institutions (66.4%) and preventing stop-outs (16.1%) were the four-year privates. Public four-years saw students complete at their same institutions 58.1% of the time but had 22% of them stop out.

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There were several other significant numbers from the Clearinghouse’s report, the 10th in its series that began in 2015 and tracked students through June 2021:

32: The number of states, out of the 46 with enough data to report, that saw completion increases. That was a huge jump from the 12 from the 2014 cohort. States with the largest boosts included Nevada (4.6%), Utah (3.4%) and Alabama (3.3%), while Idaho, Oregon and Tennessee were the lone states to experience drops, all at -1.2%

1.9%: The rise in completions for Black students outpaced all other ethnic groups, and came largely via increases at public institutions. White and Latinx students saw a just over 1% increase, while Asian students remained level.

24+: Those 24 and over had the biggest rise in terms of six-year completion of any age group at +2.5%. Traditional-age students saw a percentage-point gain, and they were far and away the leaders in completion at 64%.

68.2% vs. 59.9%: The difference among traditional-age college women and men, respectively, in terms of completion. For adult learners, it was 50.7 to 48.2 in favor of men.

Clearinghouse researchers noted that more students in the 2015 cohort started at public four-years over community colleges and for-profits, which may have led to a rise in completion rates.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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