Clearinghouse report shows older learners help drive growth in credentials

However, higher education is not seeing gains in degrees or certificates attained by traditional-age students.

Older learners continue to be a positive force for higher education, both in terms of enrollments and in the degrees and certificates they are earning.

Buoyed by a 1.4% rise from non-traditional-age graduates, the number of students receiving credentials jumped by 1.1% overall during 2020-21, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Of the nearly 40,000 new credential earners–which boosted the overall number to 3.7 million graduates during the academic year—more than 10,000 came from students 25 and over. Those 30-and-over posted more than 4% gains. Non-first-time graduates that pulled together stackable credentials also saw around 4% growth, the best performance in a decade.

However, the NSCRC’s Undergraduate Degree Earners Report, Academic Year 2020-21 showed that first-time graduates made no gains after experiencing a decline (25,000 students) for the first time in 10 years during 2019-20. In fact, traditional-age students earning credentials dipped 0.5%, which is not great news given that they comprise nearly three-quarters of the pool.

“The growth in overall undergraduate credential completers this year is two-sided news,” said Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications for the Clearinghouse Research Center. “The overall growth was led by stacked credential earners, but first-time graduates as a whole had no growth. This implies a growing dichotomy of the haves and have-nots in postsecondary attainment.”

Perhaps surprising given the trend toward shorter-term credentials was that certificate earners fell by 2.6%, while those earning baccalaureates (+0.7%) and associate degrees (0.3%) made gains. The increased number of two-year degree recipients was especially significant given the 3.7% drop experienced in the prior year.

The rising number of bachelor’s degree earners who previously earned associate degrees was also notable at +5%, or 22,000 students year over year. Since 2015-16, that number has steadily risen and shows the efforts both communities colleges and four-year institutions are making to help students remain on pathways to earn credentials.

Overall undergraduate credential earners

So what are they earning? Bachelor’s degrees were most popular for both first-time and non-first-time grads, comprising 57% of the overall pool of credential recipients. Associate degrees were at 26%, followed by certificates at 18%. Non-first-time graduate awards eclipsed 1 million for the first time.

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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