Decline in degree earners


College graduates earning an undergraduate credential fell last year for the first time in a decade, led by a significant drop in first-time graduates — especially among those attaining associate degrees, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But there was an increase in the overall percentage of students earning certificates.

Although students of all ages saw a decrease in degree attainment among first-time grads in the 2021-22 academic year, those 25 years and older experienced the steepest declines, the report shows.

“The pandemic’s impact on higher education has gone beyond the declining numbers of current students and is now showing up as a drop in the annual number of new graduates as well, taking it all the way back to the level of 2016-17,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a release. “This is a setback to those seeking higher postsecondary attainment rates, leaving the nation and many states falling further behind on goals for a highly educated workforce.”

Overall undergraduate credential completions dropped by -1.6% (58,800 completers) from the previous year, according to the report. Of those, first-time graduates declined -1.9% (50,700). Among first-time graduates, associate-degree earners fell more than baccalaureate earners: -7.6% (56,800) and -2.4% (36,000), respectively.

Baccalaureate earners who had a prior associate degree decreased (-2.5% or 11,600) after having steadily grown over the past eight years, the report says.

On the other hand, 9% (42,200) more people have earned a certificate in the last academic year.

Age breakdowns

The report provides a breakdown by age groups. The overall number of first-time credential earners who were 24 years and younger decreased -1.0% (19,100) after a small bump the previous year (0.2% or 3,000 students). Associate-degree earners dropped far more than bachelor’s-degree recipients in this traditional college age group: -6.5% or 30,700 compared to -1.0% or 13,000 for bachelor’s degree earners.

Meanwhile, the number of credential earners 25 years and older declined (-4.1% or 30,600). Associate and bachelor’s degree recipients contributed most to this loss, falling -9.3% (25,700) and -8.9% (22,600), respectively. Certificate completers increased across most age groups except those 50 years and older.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.