College completion rates still rising in most states

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • Most states increased their six-year completion rates between 2009 and 2013, new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reveals.

  • Some of the states that experienced the biggest gains during that time were among the most populous in the country, the report notes: Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, New York and California.

  • Notably, 33 states boosted completion rates among students who started at two-year institutions in 2013 compared to those who started the year before. This comes as many community colleges attempt to be more inventive in retaining their students and helping them graduate. 

Dive Insight:

NSCRC’s report on state trends follows its earlier research that showed nationally, six-year completion rates had reached an eight-year high of 60%.

Completion rates among institutions of all types — public and private four-year colleges, as well as public two-year colleges — all reached historic highs since NSCRC began tracking the data in 2006.

The state-level information, which largely mirrors the national patterns, provides a more nuanced view of which jurisdictions have been most successful in raising their completion rates. 

Ohio, Georgia and Michigan each lifted their six-year rates by roughly 9 percentage points over the period tracked, which were some of the biggest increases. Only two states backslid. Alabama lost a little over 1 percentage point and New Hampshire fell by nearly 9 percentage points.

NSCRC did not provide comparative data on five states — Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — citing “uneven historical data coverage.”

The findings bode well for two-year colleges, which nationwide had completion rates of nearly 41% for students who started at one of those institutions in 2013. A majority of states increased their two-year college completion rates among such students, though eight states saw drops, the most significant being South Dakota, which dropped 4 percentage points.

The report also notes that first-time community college students are getting younger. Eight states had a 3 percentage point-increase in the share of traditional-age students starting at two-year colleges in 2012 and 2013.

Community colleges have not escaped the heightened scrutiny of the higher education sector, with skeptics wondering whether these schools, which have generally offered a less-expensive route to a postsecondary credential, can deliver a return on investment.

To that end, many community colleges have turned to guided pathways, a system in which students develop an academic plan early on in their education. 

Transitioning to guided pathways from the traditional delivery of education at community colleges (which one Brookings Institution report characterized as “cafeteria-style”) can be time-consuming.

But the model can yield positive results, as many institutions have discovered. Wallace State Community College, in Alabama, began shifting its model in 2012. From 2013 to 2017, the share of students earning a degree within three years climbed 15 percentage points.

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