Forget 4 years: Colleges struggle to see students complete degrees in 5

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that students are lagging in both credits attempted and earned.

According to a new study released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, students are neither taking enough credit hours nor finishing coursework in time to earn bachelor’s degrees within five years, let alone four.

The new Postsecondary Data Partnership Insights Report, which looked at patterns among more than 900,000 enrolled students across 324 institutions, showed that only 51% of those entering college during the fall of 2019 and three semesters during 2020 earned 24 or more credit hours in their first year. For those getting behind early, or for the 25% that didn’t complete those credits, it extended the time to graduation by more than 12 months. Although the COVID-19 pandemic likely had some impact on the numbers, most students who were enrolled did have access to courses either remotely or in person. Either way, as students come in for 2022-23, it is important that proper supports and resources are in place to better those outcomes.

“College and university administrators and practitioners can use these metrics to design effective and timely support for those students who need it the most, while students are still enrolled,” said Dr. Afet Dundar, director of Equity in Research and Analytics at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and one of the authors of the report. “Otherwise, students will continue to fall behind academically and financially by not completing college as soon as possible.”

The Clearinghouse’s analysis highlighted that students on average earn less than 22 credits from the 27 credit hours they attempt. Across five years, that’s 110 credits or 10 short of earning that coveted degree. Those numbers were exacerbated when delineated by race, degree type, institution and overall readiness. For example, during that first year, Black students fell behind Asian and white students by about one three-hour class. A breakdown of the percentage of credits earned to credits attempted shows the gaps between the different ethnic and racial groups:

  • Non-resident alien: 84.1%
  • Asian: 83.5%
  • White: 79.8%
  • Two or More Races: 73.8%
  • Hispanic: 73.6%
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander: 72.8%
  • American Indian or Alaska Native: 67.8%
  • Black or African American: 66.8%

Transfer students did a little better than undergraduates at getting to completion, surpassing credit hours earned by about 5%, or 79.3% overall. Women also outpaced the men by a similar margin and completed at nearly the same percentage as transfers. But even among women, there were massive disparities. Asian women were more than twice as likely to complete 30 or more credits in that first year than Black women. Also notable was that all students 24 and over struggled to keep pace with 17-to-23-year-olds. Those who started as full-timers were nearly 10% more likely than part-time students to complete credits.

More from UB: 6 ways to keep students on track to graduate

Among the majors, the most likely to succeed in terms of credit hours earned to those attempted at four-year institutions were students pursuing education (85.1%), social sciences (84.2%), STEM (82.8%) and business (81.8). Last on the list was liberal arts (74.4%), which included the group of undecided students. Two-year institutions saw a nearly level distribution among majors, though those pursuing associate’s degrees were less likely to complete the number of credit hours than those at four-year colleges. Private four-years saw the best percentage at nearly 86%.

“One clear focus for institutions is on maximizing students’ course completion rates and maximizing the likelihood a student surpasses an important credit-hour threshold in their first year of study while also working to equalize attainment rates across groups,” Clearinghouse researchers said. “One possible step is to increase the number of credits attempted by students. Beyond increasing credits attempted, empirically guided mechanisms to increase the share of courses students complete and earn credit for will also be important to increasing and equalizing early momentum outcomes.”

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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