Getting More College Students to Graduation Day--New Data on Public Two-Year Institutions

May 30, 2013

By Julie Strawn, Marcie W.M. Foster, and Patrick Reimherr

Over the past few weeks, college students across the country have been walking the stage and gleefully retrieving their diplomas. Unfortunately not everyone gets that happy ending. In the U.S., almost 30 percent of college students leave without completing a credential and don’t return (over a six year period). Conventional wisdom, backed up by some recent reports, such as those from Complete College America and the College Board Study Group , suggests that the completion problem largely lies with “non-traditional students” (often defined as older, working students who attend less than full-time). But more comprehensive data released last fall by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) paint a different picture. Rather than isolating age or enrollment intensity as the critical factors that explain differences in completion rates at two-year schools, the NSC data offer compelling evidence that two- and four-year institutions enroll fundamentally different types of students, and therefore the completion challenge should be viewed through that prism.

The NSC study tracked the 2006 cohort of first-time, degree-seeking college students (at two- and four-year institutions) over a six-year period. The study includes 94 percent of undergraduates, providing the most comprehensive picture of college completion to date and a fresh perspective on the current completion debate. Unlike the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data, NSC tracks students even as they transfer between institutions and states, providing a much more robust, longitudinal picture of enrollment and completion patterns.

NSC data show that, while completion rates are higher for younger students at four year institutions, within the two-year college sector older and younger students have similar completion rates. Similarly, NSC data show that, unlike in the four-year sector, mixed enrollment over the course of one’s college career does not explain differences in completion rates for students at two-year institutions. Moreover, the NSC data show that more than half of all undergraduates now attend a mixture of full- and part-time (called “Mixed Enrollment” in the study) while just 7.2 percent of students attend exclusively part-time. This suggests policymakers should be cautious about basing student aid policies on enrollment status since more than half of students are moving between full- and part-time attendance over the course of their college careers.

In diagnosing the cause of low completion rates, the NSC study makes three very important contributions to our understanding of two-year college students which contradict the notion that nontraditional students are the source of the problem:

  • Older students complete at about the same rate as younger students. 35.8 percent of older students complete within six years, compared to 36.5 percent of younger students. And many students in both age groups who did not complete were still enrolled after six years (see Figure 1).
  • Mixed-enrollment students were slightly less likely than full-time students to drop out. At the end of the six-year period, 39.9 percent of mixed-enrollment students were no longer enrolled and did not complete, versus 43.3 percent of full-time students (see Figure 2).
  • Older students do not necessarily perform worse than younger students with the same enrollment patterns at two-year colleges. Young students (24 or younger) attending exclusively full-time perform slightly better than older students (over 24). But older students who attend exclusively part-time perform better than younger, exclusively part-time students.

College completion is a major challenge, and the NSC report shows that we need to improve completion across all institution types. However, the size and scope of the completion challenge at two-year public colleges should warrant significant consideration. According to CLASP analysis of NSC data, two-year public colleges serve a third of all undergraduates but account for almost half of non-completers. 

Figure 1: Older Students Complete at About the Same Rate as Younger Students
Source: National Student Clearinghouse, Signature Report Four (November 2012)

But the solutions must be based on an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Completion is a challenge for all types of students in public two-year institutions, whether older or younger, attending full-time, part-time, or as mixed enrollees. Thus, proposals to determine student aid based on age or enrollment status are misguided. Policymakers should look at issues affecting all two-year college students, such as rising unmet financial need or increasing tuition and fees, that force students to work more while in school, which  puts their completion at risk. Those problems point to other kinds of solutions, such as helping two-year institutions better support student success and providing more aid to low-income students so that they can work less and move toward that graduation day faster.

Completion is an important metric of a well-functioning higher education system; however, in proposing solutions we should not undermine the goal of college access based on incorrect assumptions about who does and does not complete.

Figure 2: Mixed-Enrollment Students Were Slightly Less Likely Than Full-Time Students to Drop Out

Source: National Student Clearinghouse, Signature Report Four (November 2012)



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