Two-year college completion rates edge up again

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The average college completion rate for U.S. higher education continues to follow the trend of the past few years: the overall national rate remains stalled, while the rate for community colleges has slightly increased, and the rate for public four-year institutions has again dipped.

An annual report on completion trends released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center shows the overall six-year completion rate for students starting college in fall 2017 is 62.2%, which is about where it has idled since 2015. The rate for public two-year colleges, however, has again ticked up by roughly 0.3 percentage points to 43.4% — reaching a new high mark and continuing its upward climb since 2014, when the rate was 40.7%.

Meanwhile, the six-year completion rate for all four-year institutions has decreased: Among public institutions, it dropped -0.6 percentage points to 67.4%, and private institutions saw a decline of -0.3% to 77.5%.

The report — which focuses primarily on degree and certificate completion of a cohort of first time-in-college, degree-seeking students — also has data on eight-year completion rates, which provide a wider window for students to complete their credential, including students who stopped out of college and returned. But the longer period for students starting in fall 2015 doesn’t appear to result in higher rates. In fact, overall, it declined from 65.2% to 64.7%. For community colleges, the eight-year rate dipped from 45.1% to 44.7%. Public four-year institutions saw a decrease from 72.4% to 71.6%.

The figures seem to track recent trends of students weighing work and education options. Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, speculated that turmoil in the labor market could prompt uncertainty among students, who may opt to work instead or seek different education and training opportunities.

“Not only have fewer of the 2017 starters completed as of 2023, but the data also show fewer still enrolled, suggesting this is more than just a matter of slower progress during the pandemic years,” he said.

Fewer students completing within six years appears to be a result of more students stopping out, not more staying enrolled longer, according to the report.

Overall nationally, students still enrolled over the six-year period decreased from 8.9% to 8.6%. For community colleges, it declined -0.3 percentage points to 11.2%, and at public four-years it dipped -0.2 percentage points to 8.4%. The rate for community college students not enrolled at any institution is the same as it was last year, 45.4%, though that is still far higher than the rate for overall and at public four-year institutions, which saw slight increases to 29.2% and 24.3%, respectively.

Race/ethnicity, gender, age

Most race/ethnicities saw increases in the six-year completion rate, with Asian (53.8%) and White (51.1%) students having the highest rates among public two-year students. Hispanic and Black students both saw a 0.5 percentage point increase to 38.4% and 31.6%, respectively.

Female community college students saw an uptick of 0.3 percentage points to 46.9%, and males saw 0.2 percentage point increase to 41%. Overall, however, the completion gap between women and men in higher education continues to grow, now at it widest since 2008, the report says.

The six-year rate among exclusively full-time students at public two-year colleges remains at 66.5%, while it increased for part-time students to 20.2%, from 19.5%. Mixed enrolled stayed roughly the same at 38.1%.

Traditional college-age students entering college in fall 2017 saw declines in their overall six-year completion rate, the report notes. Community colleges were the only sector to see completion gains for this age group.

The report also observes that adult learners, who were over age 24 when they started college in 2017, were the only age group to make gains this year again. Community colleges and private nonprofit four-year institutions both drove these gains, it says.

State trends

The report also follows completion rates among states. Overall, the six-year rate increased in more than half of the states, with nine states — Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming — seeing an increase of 1 percentage point or more. States with a decrease of 1 percentage point or more include Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington.

The growth among community colleges was driven by increases in 29 states, with nine states seeing gains of more than 2 percentage points, according to the report. North Dakota and Idaho saw the largest increases (4.6 and 3.7 percentage points). Fifteen states experienced declines in their community college completion rates, but only four saw declines greater than 1 percentage point, with Massachusetts and Oregon seeing the largest declines (-2.8 and -3.7 percentage points).

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.