Blog: The Educated Reporter

New Numbers Say More Students Are Completing College

More Americans are completing college than previously thought, according to two papers that suggest the federal government has been undercounting the success of postsecondary students.

For years, higher education experts have been calling for more data on student behavior and completion rates. By calculating college completion rates for a large swath of students normally not counted in government research, the reports released this month by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the American  Council on Education address many of the shortcomings of the official federal data.

After taking into account transfer students, adult learners, and those who exit community colleges and enter four-year programs, the reports indicate college completion surges to 75 percent for full-time students. The most widely cited source of federal completion data, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, excludes in its calculations any students who begin school part-time, do not start in the fall term, or transfer from four-year institutions. In recent years, student mobility has increased while the role of traditional four-year colleges in educating the nation’s students has diminished. “Indeed, at present, less than half of all college students are counted in federal graduation rates,” wrote Bryan J. Cook, the author of the ACE policy paper.

[See EWA's Story Starter on College Completion]

For its report, the National Student Clearinghouse followed the academic careers of nearly 1.9 million students from 2006 to late spring of 2012, calculating the six-year cohort completion rate for 97 percent of the nation’s students who attend public and private nonprofit institutions. This six-year cohort rate is the metric federal officials use to determine a postsecondary institution’s success in graduating its students in a timely manner.

The Clearinghouse report works in tandem with the ACE counterpart; the former performed the research while the latter crunched the numbers to offer a comparison to federal data. The idea of the ACE paper was to make an apple to apple comparison, said Terry Hartle, vice president of government affairs at ACE.

Some of the Clearinghouse findings include:

  • Between 2006 and 2012, 12 percent of first-time students who completed their programs did so at a school other than the one in which they started, lifting the overall completion rate from 42 to 54 percent;
  • For all students, one in five students earned a degree at an institution other than the one where they started – making their school completion invisible to traditional data. Nearly 33 percent of students at two-year schools wrapped up their education at a different institution;
  • Students age 24 or younger had higher completion rates than older students, with the latter group having a much lower six-year completion rate (57 percent vs. 42 percent).