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Student Attainment Is Higher than Previously Reported

December 12, 2012

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center last month released a new report, "Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates". The Clearinghouse is in a unique position to more robustly track students because it has unit-level data for 94 percent of post-secondary students who attend Title IV-eligible institutions. Because the Clearinghouse has student-level data, they are able to go beyond typical Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reporting figures - which traditionally calculate graduation rates based on first-time full-time students who finish at the school where they began - and track students as they transfer between institutions. One-third of first-time students who began studying in 2006 attended multiple institutions, and the ability to track these students is extremely useful in understanding the reality of college attainment and persistence at American institutions.

True Completions Vary by Sector

Of college students who first enrolled as degree-seeking students in fall 2006, 12.1 percent earned a degree or certificate at an institution other than the one where they started. These completions, previously uncaptured by standard measurements, raise the six-year completion rate from 42.0 percent to 54.1 percent. Four-year private nonprofit institutions had the largest share of students (12.9 percent) complete a degree at another institution, while four-year for-profit schools only had 4.9 percent of students finish at another institution (and only 32.9 percent complete a degree at the original school). Overall, 22.4 percent of students who earned a degree or certificate did so at another institution.

This data also enabled a more thorough investigation into community college completion rates. Fifteen percent of students who start at a public two-year institution earn a degree from a four-year school within six years. Roughly two-thirds of these students do so by transferring to the four-year school without ever completing a two-year degree or certificate. These educational successes have previously gone unmeasured and unrecognized.

Out-of-State Completions

The research also sheds new light on out-of-state completions. More than one-fourth of transfer students move to an institution in a different state. Six point five percent of student who earn a degree or certificate (3.5 percent of the total fall 2006 cohort) do so in a different state from where they started. Not only have these students been missing from traditional research, but they are also not captured by state longitudinal databases. These students represent a significant group who may have been previously unrecognized in research-based policy decisions. The Clearinghouse reports that many of these students face transfer policies and agreements that focus almost entirely on in-state transfers. This is not only a group that may be underserved in the transfer process, but also may represent a missed opportunity to produce and introduce new graduates into a state's economy.

Older Students Lag in Completion and Persistence

Adult learners - those who began school for the first time in the fall of 2006 at the age of 25 or older - graduate less often. Only 42.1 percent of these students complete a degree or certificate, compared to 56.8 of students aged 24 or younger. Older students were also less mobile and much less likely to persist with school. The data show that 44.4 percent of older students were no longer enrolled and did not receive a degree after six years, while only 26.4 percent of traditional-aged students fell into this category. Of those who did earn a degree or certificate, 85.2 percent of older students completed it at their starting institutions, compared to 76.4 percent of traditional-aged students. The disparities in completion rates were driven by adult learners who enrolled exclusively full-time. This may indicate a need for institutions to provide better counseling regarding what a full-time enrollment may mean for adult learners or provide specific support to these students once they begin.

Copies of the report are available for no charge on the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's Web site.


James D. Ward
Research Analyst