In an academic year roiled by the pandemic, with many schools using remote or hybrid models, colleges and universities posted an unexpected increase in undergraduate credential earners, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).
The report, which focused on the 2020-21 school year, found that after staying flat during the first year of the pandemic, the number of undergraduate credential earners increased by roughly 39,000, to 3.7 million. This 1.1% improvement matched the average rate of growth for the academic years between 2012 and 2019. The report is based on data from institutions representing 97% of post-secondary enrollments in America.
“It was pleasantly surprising to see the rebound to the pre-pandemic level of growth,” said Dr. Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications for the NSCRC and an author of the report.
Almost 97% of the increase was made up of non-first-time graduates, such as students earning bachelor’s degrees after having achieved associate’s degrees, or getting additional professional certificates. These earners of “stacked credentials” increased by almost 4%, the largest one-year jump in nearly a decade.
This increase in multiple credential earners was driven by the economic conditions of the pandemic, according to Dr. Katharine Meyer, a post-doctoral research associate at Brown University who has studied credential stacking. Due to concerns about permanent unemployment, many states increased funding to support residents who wanted to obtain additional credentials in order to change industries.
However, Ryu believes the increase in stacked credential earners obscures a concerning trend for others. The number of first-time graduates failed to increase meaningfully after a pandemic decline of almost 1% in 2019-2020.
“These are the students who would have otherwise earned associate’s degrees or certificates from community colleges,” said Ryu.
Indeed, although enrollment has been down since 2020 for nearly every kind of post-secondary institution, community colleges have been the hardest hit by a significant margin. And the reason may be that potential attendees are suffering more from the pandemic.
“We suspect these students faced differential pandemic-related economic and health impacts compared to their peers who come from more affluent backgrounds,” said Ryu.
However, the consequences may linger after the pandemic abates.
“The 'haves' will continue to reap the benefits [of education]. ‘Have-nots’ [will] trail further behind because they are further away from accessing and completing post-secondary education,” said Ryu. “The pandemic has taken the existing racial, ethnic, and gender disparity and turned it into a much worse level.”
“It’s going to be very hard, I think, to reach those students and find a way to get them to enroll in their initial credential,” she said.
Colleges have responded to their enrollment declines by focusing on the students that they already have—or had recently.
“Institutions are already making concerted efforts to improve student retention because they realize the enrollment declines are worsening and finding new sources of enrollment to fill the empty seats might be more challenging,” said Ryu.
Schools are also aiming to bring back students who have previously attended but did not graduate—the “some college, no credential” population. Several have created innovative programs to attract these students.
Even with these efforts, Ryu predicts that the overwhelming percentage of stackers in the 2020-21 growth means that the increase in credential earners overall is not likely to be repeated in the near future.
“Upward transfer students who are moving from community colleges to four-year colleges dropped sharply,” she said. “So, the potential students who would lead to future stacked credential gains are soon to be running out. I expect [that] next year’s report on undergraduate credential earners is likely to present very different patterns.”
Although the report’s results may be less encouraging than they appear at first glance, Meyer believes that they clarify what needs to be done.
“It really crystallizes the importance of focusing financial resources and policy attention on helping students at their initial enrollment margin,” she said. “[That’s] a path forward for the next few years, to ensure that we don’t have this lost cohort and that they get a chance to get back on the on-ramp.”