New research examines college completion rates nationally; plenty of room for improvement

American Enterprise Institute analyst Preston Cooper takes a close look at college graduation rates. Writing in Forbes, he calls the results disappointing, but notes a wide variance depending on institution.

Four-year public and private nonprofit schools have the best completion rates, with 65% and 76% of students starting at these institutions attaining a credential, respectively. That’s good news, given that these schools enroll a majority of the students covered by the NSC analysis.

But completion rates are still abysmal at other categories of institutions. At four-year for-profit colleges, the typical completion rate is 35%. The situation is little better at public (two-year) community colleges, where the completion rate is just 38%.

The data come from the annual report of the National Student Clearinghouse. The following is from the executive summary, which helps put “disappointing” in perspective.

One of the major findings from the previous completions report, on the fall 2010 entering cohort, was that the overall completion rate had increased for the first time since the Great Recession, rising 1.9 percentage points to 54.8 percent. Although promising, that was still more than one point lower than the pre-recession high of 56.1 percent reached by the cohort that entered college in 2007. For the current 2011 cohort, the six year completion rate grew by an additional 2.1 points, surpassing the pre-recession rate.

There was a three percentage point increase in the proportion of traditional-age students, from 73.8 percent to 76.8 percent, and a decrease in the proportion of adult enrollments, from 18.8 to 13.7 percent of the cohort. Prior reports have shown that traditional-age students are more likely than delayed-entry and adult learners to complete a credential within six years. In the 2011 cohort, 61.7 percent of traditional-age students completed a credential, compared to 41.7 percent for adult learners. The shift to a younger cohort alone accounts for some of the rise in the overall completion rate, yet there was also a nearly two percentage point increase in the completion rate for traditional-age students, from 59.9 percent to 61.7 percent, and a nearly one point increase among adult learners, from 40.8 to 41.7 percent.

Along with more traditional-age students, the share of full-time students also increased, from 39.5 percent in 2010 to 45.7 for the 2011 cohort. This contributed directly to the overall increase in the completion rate as well. Specifically, 80.1 percent of students who enrolled exclusively full-time completed a degree, compared to 20.5 percent for exclusively part-time students and 39.5 percent for mixed enrollment students.

So, some improvement. Cooper writes of the methodology,

The report tracks degree-seeking students who first entered college in fall 2011 and determines how many had attained a degree or certificate within six years. Unlike many other measures of completion, which only look at graduation rates at the first institution a student attends and ignore the fortunes of those who transfer, the NSC report tracks students’ outcomes no matter where they obtain their degrees.

Tracking over time matters.

Just under half (45%) of students obtain a degree or certificate at the first institution they attend within six years of starting college. Another 12% transfer and complete at a different institution, for a total completion rate of 57%. Six years after first enrolling, 12% of students have not completed college but are still enrolled. Nearly one in three (31%) drop out entirely.

In an era when most new jobs will be filled by people with a postsecondary certificate or some college, completing the program is critical.

As the Seattle Times reports, degrees come with different economic benefits. The story links to an interactive dashboard published by the state Education and Research Data Center. It provides a lot of interesting data, with some limitations as noted by the Times.

The data have some limitations — they only include graduates who went to Washington public colleges and universities and remained in Washington state to work, said Jeffrey Thayne, the ERDC’s data communications coordinator, and Andrew Weller, its data-visualization analyst.

Unfortunately, the NSC report does not breakout outcomes by state. But interesting nonetheless.