Dive Brief: 

  • About 3.7 million students earned an undergraduate credential in the 2018-19 academic year, up from 3.4 million in 2012-13, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

  • Traditional-age students and those who already completed a credential drove the increase. Meanwhile, students age 25 and older accounted for a lower share of credential earners in 2018-19 than they did six years prior. 

  • The findings come as many schools are bracing for a decline in traditional-age students, which the report defines as ages 24 and younger, by tapping the market for adult learners. 

Dive Insight: 

A larger number of students earning undergraduate credentials might help many states meet their attainment goals. Yet a declining share of older learners doing so could be a troubling finding for colleges and lawmakers alike. 

From the 2012-13 to 2018-19 academic years, the number of traditional-age, first-time graduates increased by 18%, while those ages 25 and older decreased by 22%, the report notes. 

Several states have postsecondary attainment goals specifically for adult students. For example, Louisiana is aiming to raise the share of adults ages 24 to 64 who hold a credential from 44% to 60% over the next decade. At least seven other states have similar goals, according to a report last year from Ithaka S+R. 

Meanwhile, colleges are hoping to attract older students to stave off projected enrollment declines. Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College, predicts that enrollment will drop by about 15% in the next decade largely because there will be fewer traditional-age students due to a lower birthrate during and after the Great Recession.  

The trend is expected to hit certain regions of the U.S., including the Northeast and the Midwest, particularly hard. Some colleges have already seen enrollment slide among traditional-age students due to several factors, including a drop off in high school graduates in some parts of the countryand are closing or merging in response. 

Colleges with large online programs that target nontraditional students, including Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors universities, have bucked the trend by attracting a growing share of young learners. That’s likely due in part to the flexibility online colleges offer students who are balancing job and family responsibilities, higher ed experts say.

More students are earning additional undergraduate credentials, the report notes. About 26% of students who earned an undergraduate credential in 2018-19 already had one, up three percentage points from 2012-13. Moreover, this group grew six times faster than did first-time graduates over this timeframe. 

The bachelor’s degree is also becoming more popular, with the number of students earning one as their first postsecondary credential increasing by 8%. Meanwhile, the number of students earning associate degrees dropped by 4%. 

Colleges are doing more to include certificates and other short-term credentials in degree programs. At BYU-Pathway Worldwide, part of a network of institutions that includes Brigham Young University, in Utah, students must earn short-term certificates while completing their associate or bachelor’s degree. Doing so makes it more likely that they’ll at least have a certificate if they drop out of their programs. 

And Broward College, in Florida, offers more than 40 associate and bachelor’s degrees that embed industry certifications into students’ courses of study. Although the practice is associated with blue-collar fields, such as welding, it’s beginning to take off in other sectors, like information technology and healthcare.

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