Earned associate degrees trend down

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The number of first-time associate-degree earners (students with no prior college credential) has decreased from 2012-13 to 2018-19, due mainly to a drop among older students earning a two-year degree, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

The number of first-time associate-degree earners dipped over the seven-year period from 806,721 to 770,484, though there was a 1.4 percent increase from 2017-18 to 2018-19, according to a new report from the center. Traditional college-age students (younger than 25) earning an associate degree as their first credential actually jumped up over the span, from 397,031 to 477,813, with significant increases each year. The biggest increase (3.9 percent) came between 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Among adult learners, the figures dropped each year over the period studied, with decreases growing among older students. For example, 144,471 first-time associate degrees were earned by students ages 25 to 29 in 2012-13 — dropping to 122,251 in 2018-19. For the age group 30 to 39, 150,361 earned associate degrees as their first credential in 2012-13, compared to 107,211 in 2018-19. The age group comprising 40 to 49 years of age saw a drop from 76,522 to 43,026 over the same period.

Overall, the number of first-time undergraduate-degree earners is steadily increasing, also largely driven by traditional-age graduates and those who had previously earned a credential, the report said. First-time graduates continue to decline as a share of all graduates, and they increasingly comprise traditional-age learners who chose bachelor’s over associate degrees, it said, noting that the trend has been consistent over the past few years. 

Degree earners with prior credentials

The NSC Research Center report is chock-full of information, including a breakdown of degree earners with prior credentials. The number of bachelor’s-degree earners with prior associate degrees increased substantially, from 368,727 in 2012-13, to 444,415 in 2018-19, comprising 20 percent to nearly 22 percent of total baccalaureate earners each year in the period studied.  

Among students earning associate degrees, about 80 percent had no prior awards. Of those who did, most had a certificate (82,611 in 2018-19), followed by students with associate degrees (74,589 in the same year). Both groups saw increases over the seven-year period. The number of associate-degree earners with previous bachelor’s degrees remains steady at about 35,000 over the period, as did those with a prior master’s degree (about 3,000).

Among certificate earners, the number of students with previous certificates, associate degrees and baccalaureates increased. In 2018-19, 65,665 also had a previous certificate (10 percent of total certificate earners), 60,778 had a prior bachelor’s degree (9.3 percent of certificate earners) and 55,951 had a prior associate degree (8.5 percent of all certificate earners).

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.