Dissecting data on degree earners

The number of students earning their first undergraduate degree — both associate and bachelor’s degrees — in 2015-16 declined by 1.4 percent from the previous year, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The dip was driven primarily by first-time graduates ages 25 and over, who saw a decrease of 7 percent.  Many of those older students returned to work before completing a credential as the economy improved and more jobs became available, according to community college advocates.

First-time graduates under age 25, however, saw a continued growth in 2015-16, with an increase of 1.2 percent compared to the previous year, the report shows.

The report also examined new awards earned by students who had previous degrees. Those earning a second or third undergraduate credential increased by 1.7 percent over the same period.

Of first-time bachelor’s degree earners, an associate degree was the most common prior credential. Of students who earned a baccalaureate in 2015-16, 76 percent were first-time graduates (meaning no prior award), 3.2 percent already earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 19.5 percent already had an associate degree, and 1.4 had a certificate.

Among associate-degree earners, a certificate was the most common prior credential. Of students who earned an associate degree in 2015-16, 3.6 percent had previously earned a baccalaureate or higher, 7.4 percent had an associate degree and 8.1 percent already earned a certificate.

Embedded trends

Information in the report shows trends of interest to community college advocates. For example, the share (18 percent to 19.5 percent) and number (329,649 to 381,293) of baccalaureate earners with a prior associate degree has consistently gone up, noted Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges. While there is no way to tell from the data if these are community college transfers, the data do suggest that more students are transferring from community colleges with an associate degree and earning a bachelor’s degree, he said.

“Community colleges have always been an engine for upward mobility,” Phillippe said. “These data suggest that the associate degree is increasingly becoming an important stepping stone for earning a baccalaureate degree.”

The trend may be the result of efforts around the country dubbed “reverse transfer of credits,” where two-year college transfer students enrolled at a four-year institution are encouraged to determine if they previously earned enough credits to confer an associate degree.

Phillippe also noted another trend of interest: despite a drop last year, the percentage of associate degree earners with a prior baccalaureate has been increasing.

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