‘No growth’ for first time in 8 years for undergrad degree earners

A new Student Clearinghouse Research Center report shows the early effects of the pandemic, especially on two-year graduate and certificate numbers.
By: | January 28, 2021
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Undergraduate credential earners have finally hit a wall.

The overall number of undergraduate students who received associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees or certificates in 2019-20 decreased slightly over the previous year, marking the first time since 2012-13 that has happened, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

In its Undergraduate Degree Earners’ report, the Clearinghouse noted the disparity driving that downward trend – despite a 2% increase in bachelor’s degree achievers, those sealing associate’s degrees in early spring during the pandemic fell by 6.7%, with certificate holders dropping a whopping 19.9% in that time period.

Researchers noted that the outlook for 2020-21 doesn’t look much better, largely because of the massive impact and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is the first time in the last eight years that we have seen a decline in the total number of students earning their first undergraduate credential, and it has been driven by drops in associate degree and certificate earners,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “In addition to the enrollment crisis facing community colleges reported in our COVID-19 Stay Informed and Transfer, Mobility and Progress reports, this suggests further declines to come in community college student degree attainment.”

In addition to the surprising spike in bachelor’s degree earners (which continued an upward trend from previous years and despite the pandemic even in the spring months, jumping 0.7%), the overall numbers of those receiving stacked credentials increased by nearly 3%, according to the Clearinghouse and were triple those who had earned their first ones.

In total, there were 3.7 million graduates in 2019-20 that were identified by the Clearinghouse Research Center, which looks at data from 3,600 Title IV degree-granting institutions in doing research for its reports. The makeup of the pool of graduates broke down as: 74% that were first-time graduates and 26% that were considered non-first-time, or those with stacked credentials. Of that first-time graduate segment, 41% earned bachelor’s degrees and 20% associate’s degrees, with 12% gaining certificates.

The Clearinghouse noted that associate degrees were trending downward before last March, but the pandemic has exacerbated it.

During several reports this past year, it has noted the profoundly negative impact the coronavirus has had on two-year institutions. That beared out in the early numbers. When it did its Undergrad Report last year, the number of two-year degree earners had fallen 0.2% year over year; this time it was 6.7%. Certificate earners also took a massive hit in the early months of the pandemic, dropping almost 20% after making small gains in 2018-19.

In breaking down degree earners by age, there were drops across the board except for traditional-age bachelor’s degree seekers. Those bachelor’s recipients fell by 3.5% for the 25-29, 40-49 and 50-and-over age groups. Those 40-49 earning associate’s degrees and certificates fell by 6% while those categories for 50-and-over dropped 7%.