Stagnancy in Success: 6-Year Graduation Rates Fall Slightly in 2023

The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) recently released its annual update to the “Completing College: National and State Reports” series. The primary metric used by the NSC is six-year graduation rates for first-time enrollees, including both full-time and part-time students, at two- or four-year institutions, who complete a degree at any degree-granting institution in the United States. 

Overall Trends: The updated report includes completion rates for the fall 2017 cohort (and therefore graduated by 2023) and accounts for transfer within its national and state-level data. Across all higher education sectors, the national six-year graduation rate has remained essentially unchanged in the last three cohorts (62.2% for fall 2015, 62.3% for fall 2016, and 62.2% for fall 2017). This stagnation follows a 7-year upward trend where the overall national six-year graduation rate increased almost 10 percentage points from 52.9% in the fall 2009 cohort to 62.2% in fall 2015. Since 2015, public 2-year institutions are the only sector with an increase in six-year graduation rates, improving from 42.2% for the fall 2015 cohort to 43.4% for the fall 2017 cohort. Public 4-year institutions (69% in 2015 to 67.4% in 2017), private nonprofit 4-year institutions (78.3% in 2015 to 77.5% in 2017), and private for-profit 4-year institutions (46.4% in 2015 to 46% in 2017) all saw declines in graduation rates during this timeframe.

Outcome Measures: In addition to national completion rate data, the NSC also published data that show the percentage of students within the 2017 cohort across five outcome measures: completed degree at original institution, completed degree at another institution (4-year), completed degree at another institution (2-year), still enrolled, or no longer enrolled. These five categories are shown by state in the visualization below. Because the NSC data include students who started at either a 2-year or a 4-year institution, completion of a degree within 6 years can be either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree.

  • Across all sectors nationally in the 2017 cohort data, just over 70% of all first-time students had either completed a degree within six years or were still enrolled somewhere in higher education in the United States. The rate for students who were no longer enrolled and had not finished a degree was 29.2%.
  • The states of Rhode Island and Vermont had the highest percentage of students in the fall 2017 cohort who completed a degree or were still enrolled after 6 years at just over 80%. Alaska had the lowest percentage of students who completed a degree or were still enrolled after 6 years at just over 50%.
  • Texas institutions had 45% of their first-time students in the fall 2017 cohort complete a degree at the original institution in 6 years, placing Texas 43rd out of 50 states on this metric. Adding completions at other institutions and still enrolled students increases Texas’ “positive” outcomes rate to 68% after 6 years, placing Texas in 35th position out of 50 states. This means that almost one-third of students who start at any 2-year or 4-year institution in Texas leave without a degree within 6 years of enrollment.
  • Compared to the 13 other states with at least 50,000 first-time students enrolled in the fall 2017 cohort, Texas had the lowest percentage of students either completing a degree or still enrolled after 6 years. California (68.5%), Florida (68%), and Texas (67.9%) were all below the national average of just over 70.8%. 

So What?

How do we define success in higher education? For students and 4-year institutions alike, the generally-accepted 6-year window for calculating the successful completion of a degree is the de facto standard. The better question might be, “how should we define success in higher education?” With an estimated 74% of undergraduate students in US institutions having at least one nontraditional student characteristic (NCES Powerstats), as well as increases in dual credit, transfer, and “swirling” students, the traditional metrics of first-year retention and 6-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students capture fewer students each year. Future blog posts will explore additional metrics to better understand the landscape of how student success is currently measured within the United States.

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