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Dive Brief:

  • The six-year completion rate for students who started college in fall 2017 held steady at 62.2% —  essentially the same share of students who finished their programs in the previous two cohorts, according to new National Student Clearinghouse Center data.
  • Completion rates for traditional college students — those ages 20 and younger — dipped to 63.8% compared to 64% the year prior. The completion rate for students over 24 years old reached 52%, though this still lagged the national average.
  • The data also showed a widening gender gap, with 65.6% of women finishing their programs within six years, compared to 58.4% of men. That marks the biggest gender divide since the 2008 cohort.

Dive Insight:

Colleges enjoyed years of steady improvement to the average completion rate, but stagnation hit beginning with the 2015 cohort. 

The pandemic marred the final years of that cohort’s six-year graduation window. But post-COVID recovery is not higher ed’s only obstacle. 

“Not only have fewer of the 2017 starters completed as of 2023, but the data also show fewer still enrolled, suggesting that this is more than just a matter of slower progress during the pandemic years,” Doug Shapiro, the research center’s executive director, said in a statement.

The news is especially bad for four-year colleges, Shapiro said during a call with reporters Wednesday. 

Completion rates declined across all types of four-year colleges, according to the new data.

The completion rate at for-profits dropped the most, from 47.6% to 46%. Private nonprofit colleges fared the best, with their rate only declining from 77.8% to 77.5%.

The clearinghouse has flagged other bad omens for four-year colleges. First-year enrollment dropped 3.6% this fall compared to last year, with declines concentrated at four-year institutions, according to preliminary data released in October. 

Community colleges, on the other hand, have made small but steady gains in completion rates since their 2014 cohort. Among their 2017 cohort, 43.4% finished in six years, compared to 43.1% the year before.

Completion rates stagnated or declined among all racial and ethnic groups tracked by the clearinghouse. Native American students saw the biggest drop, with their rate falling from 49.5% to 47.5%. This wiped out part of their 3-percentage-point increase last year — the group’s biggest jump since the clearinghouse began collecting that data. 

Black students saw the second largest dip. Their completion rate shifted from 43.9% to 43.4%.

Both groups, along with Hispanic students, still have college completion rates well below that national average of 62.2%.

Completion rates stayed relatively flat regardless of whether students were enrolled full or part time.

The eight-year completion rate also slipped slightly, from 65.2% among the 2014 cohort to 64.7% among the 2015 cohort. Just 2.4% of students who began in 2015 finished their program in their seventh or eighth year.

“For these longtime completers, that’s the lowest rate that we’ve seen in the past five cohorts,” Shapiro said Wednesday. “What we see is that more students are stopping out altogether.”