College Completion Rates Continue to Decrease, Data Show

College completion rates took another dive last year.

Just 53% of students who began their postsecondary education in the fall of 2009 completed their degree 6 years later, according to new data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That’s down from a 55% completion rate achieved by the 2008 cohort.

The downward trend is due in part to timing, according to the research center. In 2009, the Great Recession was officially ending, but the crisis took a toll on the nation’s job market and income level that lasted for years.

More students with increasingly diverse backgrounds now attend postsecondary institutions, a trend underscored in an accompanying report published by the research center. The 2009 cohort totaled 2.9 million students, 8% more than in the previous year, and students who started at age 25 or older accounted for nearly a quarter of the increase.

The report also illustrates the mounting challenges facing higher education, which has seen an erosion of public financial support since the financial downturn. Completion rates fell for students in all age groups and across all types of institutions—although the drops were steepest for adult learners and full-time enrollees.

It is the fourth straight year that the data and research organization has released college completion data. The National Student Clearinghouse is able to track 96% of all college enrollment in the United States, which includes all postsecondary institutions (two-year and four-year institutions, public and private institutions, and nonprofit and for-profit institutions).

Despite the gloomy news, the report’s authors highlighted some silver linings, suggesting that the decreases could have been steeper were it not for current efforts and policies aimed at raising student outcomes.

“One might easily conclude that without them the declines could have been even worse for particular types of students or institutions, given the demographic and economic forces at play,” write the authors, Doug Shapiro and Afet Dundar.

Here’s where you can read the full, 71-page report on the data. We pulled out a few other highlights:

  • Older students who enrolled in college full-time faced the steepest odds. Among students between the ages of 20 and 24, completion rates dropped 9 percentage points; Among students 25 or older, there was a 7-point drop.
  • Two of three students in the 2009 cohort either obtained their postsecondary degree or are still working towards it. (53 percent finished and another 14 percent are still enrolled).
  • Younger students fared better as full-time enrollees. Of fully-enrolled students in the 2009 cohort, 74 percent obtained their postsecondary degree within six years.
  • Women completion rates outpaced men, 56.3 percent to 49.6 percent.
  • Completion rates improve when students have more time. The 2007 cohort saw its completion rate increase from 55% after six years to 62% after eight years.

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