Covid and credential attainment

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For the first time since 2012-13, the number of undergraduate credential earners in 2019-20 did not increase over the prior year, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. However, there were differences depending on the credential level, and whether the credential earner had previously earned a degree or certificate.

The total number of students who earned associate degrees and certificates decreased while those earning a bachelor’s degree increased, according to the center’s report. First-time sub-baccalaureate credential earners (those with no prior degree or certificate) decreased, while the number of sub-baccalaureate credential earners with a prior credential increased.

The report highlights trends that appear to be directly related to the impact of the pandemic on student completion of sub-baccalaureate credentials. In the period prior to Covid, the number of first-time certificate and first-time associate-degree earners were trending higher than the previous year; however, first-time associate-degree earners had a year-over-year drop of 6.5% between April and July, while first-time sub-baccalaureate credential earners dropped by nearly 20% during that same time period. These precipitous drops correlate with enrollment declines.

In addition, the drop in certificate program completions may reflect the challenge colleges encountered by having to re-engineer career and technical education programs to be safe during pandemic restrictions.

First-time credential earners have always been the largest proportion of credential earners, but that has decreased over the eight years of data provided. These data indicate that students are increasingly stacking credentials rather than only earning a single credential.

For example, the share of associate degree earners who had earned a certificate prior to their associate degree went from 6.9% in 2012-13 to 9.2% in 2019-20. Associate-degree earners also were increasingly likely to have earned a prior associate degree (from 6.9% in 2012-13 to 8.0% in 2019-20) or bachelor’s degree (from 3.8% in 2012-13 to 4.1% in 2019-20) as well.

Transfer with an associate degree from a community college to earn a bachelor’s degree does not appear to be substantially increasing as a pathway. The report shows only a slight increase in the proportion of baccalaureate earners who previously earned an associate degree (though it has steadily increased in terms of raw numbers).

According to the report, traditional-age students (those under age 25) were the only age group of first-time bachelor’s-degree earners to increase compared to the prior year, and showed the smallest decline for first-time associate-degree or certificate earners. Stated differently, the older students were less likely to complete their first credential during the pandemic.

About the Author

Kent Phillippe
is associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges.