Six-year college completion rates start to level off

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center notes a steady drop in the percentage of gains being made by institutions from the 2014 cohort.
By: | December 3, 2020
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A new report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows the continued leveling off of six-year and eight-year completion rates for students entering colleges and universities, while highlighting a ‘pleateau’ for traditional-age students and especially for underserved groups at community colleges.

The 0.3% increase year over year from the 2013 cohort to 2014 was the lowest in the past five years, according to the Clearinghouse’s Completing College: National and State Reports. Though gains continue to be made, they are not nearly as robust as those even as recently as the 2012 cohort, which showed a 2.2% increase in completion.

The Clearinghouse noted that because the study was done in June 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic likely has had no effect on those rates, which track all students who
enter college each year. Overall, the number of students finishing six-year programs is at 60.1%.

Last year’s release from the Center was notably more positive, stressing new highs attained since reporting began nine years ago. But a second sharp dip, even in positive territory, has raised caution flags for researchers.

“The completions rate trend is flattening for traditional-age students, who comprise the vast majority of the 2014 starting cohort,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “While adult completion rates continue to increase generally, the decline among community college starters, particularly Hispanic and Black students, threatens to reverse the improvements of the past several years.”

Both the eight-year completion rate overall and the six-year completion rate at community colleges dropped by 0.5%. The Center noted that the number of Black students who started at community colleges and completed their studies in six years declined 0.6% to just over 28%. In addition, ‘delayed-entry’ Hispanic students (21-24 years old) saw a steep drop of 4.8% in completion at community colleges.

However, both groups saw huge benefits from an additional two years of study. In the eight-year model, they saw a spike of +4% in completion rates. Blacks who attended four-year public colleges also saw an increase in completion of 1%, which outpaced White students (0.5%).

Some other notable findings from the Center’s researchers:

  • The completion rate of older students (25 and above) in the 2014 cohort increased by 2.7%.
  • Private non-profit four-year institutions saw a 0.2% gain. The completion rate for older men at those colleges soared 5.5%, while older women gained 3.9%.
  • At public four-year schools, which saw a 0.7% increase overall, completion rates increased in 32 out of 46 states. However, the Center noted those gains were less than the previous cohort. Even in states where there were decent increases in completion – Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah – they were 2% less than those the previous year.
  • Thought for-profits saw a 3.1% increase, the Center noted that less 2% of the cohort starts at those institutions.
  • At community colleges, the completion rates dropped in 26 of 42 states in the report. Less than half of those who reported at least 0.5% gains did so for the most-recent cohort.
  • Broken down by state, Idaho had the highest six-year completion increase from its 2013 cohort to 2014 at nine percentage points, followed by Delaware (+4%) and New Jersey (+3%). New Hampshire and Vermont were among the few states that saw a decline at -3% and -2%, respectively. Connecticut, Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Virginia and Washington all had a 1% decline from the 2013 cohort.