A dip in completion rates

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The average six-year completion rate for community colleges has dropped 0.5 percentage points to 40.3% after rising for two consecutive years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

Community colleges are the only institution type to see a drop in the six-year rate, according to the latest data on the 2014 starting cohort. The decline occurred while the rate at which community college starters are still enrolled at the end of 6th year increased by 3.1 percentage points, the largest increase of all institution types, the report says. Also, the stop-out rate for community college starters declined by 2.6 percentage points.

In addition, public two-year colleges saw a 0.5 percentage point dip in their average eight-year completion rate, to 42.1%. That rate has been steadily decreasing from 46.2% for the 2007-starting cohort, the report says.

It is unlikely that the pandemic has affected either the six-year or eight-year completion rates because the degrees and certificates counted were all completed by June 2020, the center notes. It adds that its Covid supplement enrollment report found minimal enrollment effects during this past spring.

However, education advocates are closely watching enrollments for the coming spring after the NSC Research Center reported a significant drop this fall at many community colleges.

“If the community college enrollments and completions continue to trend downward during the pandemic, the steady progress in college completions made by the nation and most states over the past few years could be jeopardized,” the center’s report says.

An overall look

The national six-year completion rate for all U.S. postsecondary institutions has essentially flattened, increasing only 0.3 percentage points to 60.1%, according to the report. The plateau is largely due to a flattening completion rate for traditional-age students, who comprised most of the beginning college student cohort (78%), as well as a decline among community college starters, particularly Hispanic and Black students, the center says. The overall six-year rate had already been slowing, it notes.

The national completion rate counts all students who enter postsecondary education for the first time each year, enrolling full-time or part-time at two-year or four-year institutions, and completing at any U.S. degree-granting institution. It includes those who complete after transfer, not just completions at the starting institution. The report is the ninth in the center’s Completing College report series, featuring the six-year college completion outcomes for the fall 2014 entering cohort, the eight-year outcomes for the fall 2012 entering cohort and the six-year outcomes by state.

Changes among races

The six-year completion rate of community college starters declined for Hispanic and Black students, despite previous growth, the report says. Considerable declines in community college completion rates were seen in delayed entry and older Hispanic students (-4.8 and -2.2 percentage points, respectively).

Likewise, the six-year completion rate for Black students declined slightly (-0.6 percentage points) to 28.2 percent, following an increase of 1.2 percentage points in the previous cohort year, the center says. Like their Hispanic counterparts, Black delayed-entry students largely contributed to this drop, having declined 2 percentage points over last year.

Only Asian students made gains. Their rate increased by 1.3 percentage points, the report says.

In the eight-year completion rates, Black and Hispanic public four-year starters continue to benefit the most from the additional two years, with their completion rates having increased 4 percentage points, to 51.6% and 61.5%, respectively.

For community college starters, Asian students benefited the most. Their completion rate increased almost 5 percentage points to 53.7%, followed by Hispanic and White students with a 3.6 and 3.2 percentage point increase, respectively. The Black student completion rate increased 2.7 percentage points to 30.2%.

Cooling at the state level, too

Far fewer states reported an increase in six-year completion rates, particularly among community college starters, than they did in the previous cohort year, the center says. In addition, the marginal increase in completion rates arising from the additional two years between the six- and eight-year outcomes has shrunk, resulting in a drop in the eight-year completion rate nationally as well as in all types of institutions.

In line with the national trend, public four-year completion rates rose in 32 out of 46 states for which sufficient data are available, while community college rates declined in 26 states out of 42 states. For community college starters, far fewer states improved this year. Only 16 states increased their six-year community college completion rate by at least 0.5 percentage points, compared to 33 states in the previous cohort. Of the 16 states, only six states — Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, New Mexico and South Dakota — saw an improvement of more than 1 percentage point, compared to 27 states in the previous cohort year.

The Clearinghouse currently collects data from more than 3,600 postsecondary institutions, representing 97 percent of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in degree-granting institutions.

About the Author

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