Six-year postsecondary completion rates have stalled, according to the latest Completing College report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which collects and analyzes data from 97% of postsecondary institutions in the U.S.
The report found that 62.3% of those who began their first year of college in 2016 reached graduation within six years, a .1 percentage point increase from the previous year. Students who began in 2016 and finished in four years were likely unaffected by the pandemic, said Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research at the National Student Clearinghouse. Later finishers, he added, may have been further along in their studies, which perhaps kept the pandemic’s negative impact to a minimum.
“We were hopeful we’d see continuing improvement, because we know there’s been so much work going on in terms of retention and completion in colleges,” said Shapiro. “But at the same time, we could say we are relieved the rates didn’t go down, given the effect of the pandemic on late finishers.”
The stall was consistent across most of the country, with only five states seeing their completion rates rise by one percentage point or higher. Completion rose across institutions for Asian and Native American students but fell for Black and Latinx students at four-year public and private nonprofit institutions. More women completed than men, bringing the completion gap to 7.1 percentage points, the largest gap since 2008.
Scholars agree that institutions should use this data as a starting point to ask themselves the important questions about how many of their students are completing and what they need to do to help everyone cross the finish line.
“The [completion] goal should be 100%,” said Dr. Travis C. Smith, assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Auburn University in Alabama. “If 62.3% are completing, we’re losing four out of ten students — that’s not good. Who are those people, how do they identify, and what are those barriers in place hindering their matriculation?”
Some of the decline in Black and Latinx completion can be attributed to a change in institutional classification in the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). IPEDS classifies any institution that offers a bachelor’s degree as a four-year institution, even if the school identifies as a community college.
Community colleges often serve lower-resourced populations, said Shapiro, which can make achieving completion more complicated. When two-year colleges become classified as four-year colleges, their student populations, and graduation rates, remain the same.
Between 2015 and 2016, 25 institutions previously classified as two-year institutions became classified as four-year institutions, an unusually high number, according to the report. It contributed to the one percentage point drop in completion at public four-year institutions.
Dr. Frank Fernandez, assistant professor of higher education leadership and policy at the University of Florida in Gainesville, agreed that the completion rates for the 2016 cohort could have been a lot worse, considering the pandemic’s impact. But he made particular note of the decrease in Latinx male completion rates. According to Fernandez, the question is where are all the Latino male graduates?
“If you tell men of color, ‘We need to reduce time to degree,’ it’s easier said than done,” said Fernandez. “[Those students] might be like, ‘I work to support my family. I can’t just go to school full-time, I have to earn money at the same time.’”
Fernandez mentioned programs like Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) led by Dr. Victor Sáenz, department chair and professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin. The program’s aim is to not only target and recruit more men of color into postsecondary programs but also to see them through to completion.
“We have to think about wrap-around services. How do we think about the institution — does it have a serious commitment to making sure that folks succeed?” asked Fernandez. “If we’re going to move the needle, we need to have institutions thinking about how we retain these students.”
Smith said he hopes that that leadership and legislators behind policy and practices in higher education remember that these enrollment figures stand in for real students, real humans.
“We have to see this data as individual lives and generations to come being impacted,” said Smith. “I would tell institutions to pull back the curtain on this data — let’s put faces to it and tell a complete story.”
Liann Herder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.