Are Outcomes Improving at Public Universities? It Depends

In our previous blog post, we explored data from the National Student Clearinghouse’s (NSC) annual update to the “Completing College: National and State Reports” series. In general, the national six-year graduation rate for the fall 2017 cohort was 62.2%. This cohort included full-time and part-time students who were first-time enrollees at two- or four-year institutions, and who completed a degree at any degree-granting institution in the United States by AY2022-2023. This overall percentage remained essentially unchanged for the third consecutive year. 

Although the NSC data in our previous post combined all institution types into the state-level calculations, we narrow our focus to better understand six-year outcomes for just four-year public universities in the US. The first visualization below (2017 Cohortshows six-year outcome rates by five categories: Completed at Original Institution, Completed at Other (4-Year) Institution, Completed at Other (2-Year) Institution, Still Enrolled, and No Longer Enrolled. The first category, Completed at Original Institution, is the traditional metric that most in higher education associate with the typical “graduation rate” calculation. Of the other four NSC designations, No Longer Enrolled represents the main negative outcome for students who leave school without earning an associate’s degree or higher.

2017 Cohort

  • Across all four-year public universities, just over 75% of first-time students had either completed a degree within six years or were still enrolled somewhere in higher education in the United States. The overall national rate for students who were no longer enrolled and had not finished a degree was 24.3%.
  • More than 71% of the 13,000 first-time enrollees in Iowa public universities (the highest percentage among the states) completed their bachelor’s degree at the original institution, with almost 87% earning a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, or were still enrolled at the six-year milestone.
  • Just over 55% of first-time enrollees at Texas public universities completed their bachelor’s degree at their original institution. This percentage ranked Texas in 29th place when compared to the other states in the primary NSC metric. More than 23% of students in the 2017 cohort across Texas public universities were no longer enrolled or had not earned a degree within six years, placing Texas 25th in comparison to other states.

2008-2017 Trends

  • The second visualization below shows 10-year trend data by state, focusing on 6-year graduation rates for students completing their degree from the originating institution. Several states are highlighted for comparison to Texas.
  • Virginia and Iowa have been the highest-performing states for graduation rates from the originating institution for the past decade. Virginia’s 10-year average was 70.24% and Iowa’s was 70.16%. 
  • Texas saw an overall increase of 7.7 percentage points from 2008 (47.6%) to 2017 (55.3%). This increase placed Texas 21st out of all states in the NSC data. The lowest graduation rate for Texas was 46.5% in the 2009 cohort with the peak percentage of 56.2% in the 2015 cohort.
  • The state of Idaho demonstrated the highest increase of 23.6 percentage points from 30.2% in 2008 to 53.8% to 2017. California was ranked last in terms of percentage point growth with a 4.2 percentage point decrease from 61.7% in 2008 to 57.5% in 2017

So What?

The national data in the NSC report offer a somewhat mixed-bag of results. From a positive perspective, the percentage of students who started at a public four-year institution and completed a degree from that institution within six years increased from 49.8% in the 2008 cohort to just over 57% in the 2017 cohort. An examination of the other “positive outcome” categories shows decreases in the percentage of students who either completed a degree at a different 4-year or 2-year school, or who were still enrolled after six years. Most disconcerting is that the percentage of students who are no longer enrolled and have not earned a degree increased from 22.7% in 2008 to 24.3% in 2017. This means that 1 out of every 4 students who enters a public university in the United States leaves without earning at least an associate’s degree within six years. This trend is moving in the wrong direction, and it is something we will explore further in future blog posts.

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