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Credentials Awarded Drop for Second Year in a Row


Caleb Woods R Ic Mw D Lk1wo UnsplashUndergraduate credentials awarded in the 2022–23 academic year fell by 2.8%, continuing its downward trend for the second year in a row. More students earned certificates than any year in the past decade, while associate degrees awarded fell to its lowest point in a decade and bachelor's degrees awarded fell to its lowest since 2015–16 academic year. These decreases happened whether the student was a first-time credential earner or had earned a credential before.

Those are the findings of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Undergraduate Earner’s Report for Spring 2024. The center collects and analyzes data from almost all U.S. postsecondary institutions.

“The rates of decline have nearly doubled from about 1.5% last year,” said Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse Research Center.

The cause could be attributed to a number of things, Shapiro said. It could be the result of the gradual decline in postsecondary enrollment seen in the nation since around 2010, or a result from the severe enrollment drops during the COVID-19 pandemic, seen particularly at community colleges.

These drops “erase the gains made between 2015 and 2020,” said Dr. Pietro A. Sasso, an associate professor of higher education and program coordinator at Delaware State University. The decreases, he added, make him nervous.

“In particular, I’m concerned about degree completion rates for women and for students of color, specifically Black males and Black women,” said Sasso. “Black women and Latina women made significant gains in degree completion, and we’re seeing that decline again.”

Every disaggregated racial group saw declines. Native Americans and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders saw the most severe drops in credential attainment, while Latinx students saw the least decline. Until this year’s data, Latinx students had continued to see increases in the number of degrees awarded.

For the first time, the center was able to disaggregate awards given to students under 18 years of age, which Clearinghouse Research analyst Beatrix Randolph said is the closest approximation to students who earn their degrees through dual enrollment programs. Students under the age of 20 years old were the only age subset to experience growth in awarded credentials, growing by 1.5%. Credentials awarded to students under the age of 18 grew by 13.9%.

Dr. Pietro A. Sasso is an associate professor of higher education and program coordinator at Delaware State University.Dr. Pietro A. Sasso is an associate professor of higher education and program coordinator at Delaware State University.“Dual enrollment did not always lead to degree completion,” said Sasso. “Now, students are dually enrolled and completing degrees, that’s the shift. More high schools are bringing back vocational and workforce programs in partnership with community colleges and public four-years, so students walk out [of high school] having completed most of their general education.”

As an example, Sasso said dual enrollment students might be able to take a fire science dual enrollment course and walk out with their high school diploma ready to enter the workforce as a firefighter. But these quicker paths to completion and careers don’t usually leave a lot of room for error or exploration, he said.

“Now students are graduating at much younger ages, so what do they miss out on?” asked Sasso.

The increased number of certificates awarded commonly aligned with trade skills. The majority of certificates awarded were in the fields of mechanic and repair technologies, precision production, and construction trades.

“I think the growth in vocational programs is contributing to the number of first-time credentials and even stacked certificates,” said Shapiro.

Sasso said the increasing number of certificates is promising.

“More universities have explicit pathway programs for people to do certification to bachelor degree, which is that idea of stackable credentials,” said Sasso. Many institutions “tether together and combine” their certificates, making it easy to encourage students to come back and finish an associate or bachelor degree.

“Certificates are a new frontier to help us promote degree completion at the bachelor’s level, and we can think about what this looks like post bachelor's degree for a master’s degree,” said Sasso, adding that more programs in humanities can consider using certificates to encourage persistence and retention.

Institutions, Sasso said, should use this data as a starting point to assess where students are failing to complete their education, places where students commonly stop out and the best practices to help keep them enrolled and on track to completion. In particular, institutions should pay attention to marginalized groups access to postsecondary programs, and institutions should consider how to make education more accessible to non-traditional students.

“There’s larger conversations we need to have around degree completion, but this data starts that conversation,” said Sasso.

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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