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Making Sense of the Rising Completion Rates Across Postsecondary Institutions

The EvoLLLution| Making Sense of the Rising Completion Rates Across Postsecondary Institutions
Of all students who started college in the fall of 2012, 58.3 per cent finished. While that marks years-long high for completion rates, there’s still work to be done.

From financial means to mobility, a number of variables can determine whether a student will persist through a program and graduate within a reasonable timeline. In this interview, Doug Shapiro reflects on the findings from of the National Student Clearinghouse’s 2018 Annual Report on Postsecondary Completions and shares his thoughts on how this information can be leveraged both by institutions and policymakers.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the key findings from the 2018 Annual Report on Postsecondary Completion?

Doug Shapiro (DS): We found that completion rates have continued to rise across the board in higher education, as the lingering effects of the recession wear off. Surprisingly, we are still feeling these effects, as it takes a long time for students who came into college during the recession to work their way to a credential. Today, there are fewer adult and part-time students enrolled in degree programs, particularly as unemployment rates have declined. So proportionately, that leaves more traditional age and full-time students in degree programs, and these students have always had higher completion rates.

Today, 68 percent of all students who started at four-year institutions completed a degree within six years. And 39 percent of all students who started a two-year college program have completed in the same timeframe. Now, we know students often go back and forth between two-year and four-year institutions, so sometimes it can be a bit artificial to make that distinction.

With that in mind, for all students who started college in the fall of 2012, there’s a combined six-year completion rate of 58.3 percent. That’s regardless of what type of institution they started in, or their time status. It includes full-time and part-time students and those who transferred from one institution to another in the course of earning that degree.

Those are not great results, but they’re pretty good compared to previous years! It’s an incremental increase, and it’s especially significant that completion rates have increased every year for the past three years. Completion levels are now the highest we have seen in the seven years we’ve been tracking them.

Evo: And just to be clear, we’re talking about completion in terms of credit-bearing offerings, so we’re not looking at non-credit enrollments here, right?

DS: That’s right. We’re looking at degree-granting institutions, and students enrolled in credit-bearing programs, seeking either degrees or certificates through credit-bearing courses.

This represents a starting cohort of about 2.3 million students, tracked across several thousand institutions. It’s a very large system, and it brings to mind the analogy of trying to turn an ocean liner around. You don’t often see much change in the completion rates overall from year to year. So, the fact that it’s gone up 1.5 percentage points this year compared to last year, is a significant increase.

Evo: Was there information in this report, especially compared to previous editions that really surprised the researchers?

DS: We were also surprised that the completion rates had improved amongst some of the most disadvantaged students in higher education.

When we broke down the results by racial and ethnic categories, we found that some of the largest increases occurred among Black and Hispanic students—meaning that the gaps in completion rates for those students compared to white students, while still quite large, have actually narrowed somewhat. That’s also very encouraging!

Evo: The research also found improved completion rates stemming from credential stacking. How do you expect this trend to continue to affect degree-completion rates going forward, especially as stackability becomes increasingly accepted outside of the technical fields where it emerged?

DS: This is a long-term trend that has been steadily increasing every year for the last seven or eight years. We see a larger percentage of the students who earned degrees each year, who have already gotten a degree or a certificate. In other words, they’re not first-time graduates, but students who have been stacking either a degree on top of a certificate, or a degree on top of a degree.

What’s driving this is students’ and families’ concerns around postsecondary affordability. There is a desire to get a credential quickly, and one that has real value in the workforce to leverage their learning and advance their career. So rather than trying to do all of your education at once and not really be able to take advantage of your growth until four or six years down the road when you finally have a degree to show for it, learners are stacking their education and returning to programs over time to advance their education and career simultaneously.

Evo: How does the trend toward stacking education impact completion tracking and research on learner progress?

DS: It definitely makes it harder for us! As researcher, we have to track students over longer periods of time. That’s not just because it takes longer to get two or three stacked credentials, but also because students tend to stop out and enroll part-time, and then go back to full-time, and that takes longer. As such, we see times to degree, even for a single degree, increasing.

So from the research perspective, we have to track students for longer to learn whether or not they have been successful. We also have to track students when they move between institutions, and that’s one of the key things that the Clearinghouse‘s comprehensive student-level data enables us to do. Unfortunately, most other data sources simply measure the students who start and finish at one institution, so these kinds of insights disappear.

Evo: How could leaders of two-year colleges leverage this year’s Signature Report findings to shift their institutional operations and better serve the learners coming through their doors?

DS: Leaders should definitely be looking at the results for different subgroups of students in the population that they serve, and then comparing those results through their Student Tracker service from the Clearinghouse to national- and state-level benchmarks published in these reports.

This gives them the best insight into how well they are serving students compared to their peer institutions and also whether or not they’re improving those results over time, relative to the larger trends. A perfectly good example here, for two-year institutions especially, is to be able to track students over long periods of time and capture some of those transfer outcomes.

Evo: Success rates for learners who transfer or aim to complete a credential at a receiving institution tend to drop. How could four-year university leaders leverage these findings and adapt their operations to better serve learners?

DS: Well, there are insights for all types of institutions in these reports, and four-year institutions are no exception. Of course, they should be doing the same kinds of benchmarking and drilling down into different populations of students that they aim to serve to see how they’re doing over time and how they’re comparing to their peers.

One example in this year’s report is that we found that the share of students who started at a four-year institution, transferred and completed elsewhere fell by a very small margin, three tenths of a percentage point. Meanwhile, students who completed at the same institution actually increased by 1.3 percentage points.

What that means is that four-year institutions are doing better at retaining students and having them graduate at the same institution with fewer transfers. That to me says that these institutions are improving their student services and academic programs, and their ability to support students and keep them enrolled.

Evo: Looking through the data, what information should policymakers leverage to help create a postsecondary ecosystem that better accommodates today’s learners?

DS: Some of the most important things, particularly at the state level, have to do with making it easier for students who need to transfer or change institutions to do so without losing credits.

It’s important to recognize that a student changing institutions is not necessarily a failure on the part of the first institution. Rather, it can be just a fact of the increasingly complex lives of students in higher education today. These students are trying to juggle so many priorities, while managing financial, employment and often family constraints. It is critically important for policymakers to understand these phenomena and create financial aid systems, articulation agreements, and credit transfer policies that address the needs of non-traditional students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.