Newest Data Shows the Completion Crisis is Worse Than We Thought

By Wesley Whistle

This week, the Department of Education released its latest batch of graduation rate data for college students. While most of our data up until this point has focused primarily on first-time, full-time students, this data provides the most comprehensive picture yet of completion rates for all students — including the part-time and transfer students who make up two-thirds of college-goers today. And, in what is a big step forward, this new dataset disaggregates completion rates by Pell Grant status for all of these groups, allowing us to see how likely students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds are to earn a degree.

The good news is that we have a fuller picture of completion rates. The bad news is that this picture reveals that the college completion crisis is much grimmer than we originally thought. Specifically, this latest batch of data reveals that in the 2009–10 academic year, more than 9.1 million students enrolled in higher education, yet only 37% graduated from that same institution eight years later — down from 45% last year when the Department first released its first Outcomes Measure survey.

This decrease could be the result of a large spike in the number of part-time students this cohort captures, either due to this cohort being the exact cohort hit by the Great Recession (and thus students were entering the higher ed system and exiting with or without degrees as the economy recovered), or because this data includes students who enroll at any point in the year, as opposed to the more “traditional” students who start only in summer and fall. Despite these factors, there’s no getting around the reality that abysmal graduation outcomes span across every single cohort. If a student attends full-time or part-time, is going to college for the first-time or is transferring between schools, not a single category of students shows a chance of graduating greater than a coin toss.

Digging below the surface of these numbers, this new data reveals three other big takeaways that policymakers and advocates cannot ignore.

1. Students attending four-year schools have a better shot at graduating than those attending two-year schools.

When comparing two- and four-year institutions, there is a 21-percentage point gap in graduation rates, with four-year students much more likely to leave college with a degree in hand. One bright spot in the data is that students who transfer into an institution show higher graduation rates than their first-time peers. Of course, that’s likely due to the fact that these are students transferring in credits with a time-to-completion clock that has basically been reset. However, this data is limited, making it hard to know how many schools these students have already attended or exactly how many credits they have earned.

2. Four-year schools may have better graduation rates, but not all sectors are equal.

While four-year schools may be doing a better job overall at graduating their students, a disaggregation of this data by sector reveals that we cannot let them off the hook, as large disparities exist between public, private non-profit, and for-profit schools. Students have a greater chance of graduating if they attend a four-year public or non-profit institution (graduating at a rate between 18 and 32 percentage points higher) as opposed to if they enroll in a for-profit school. In fact, fewer than 259,000 of the nearly 850,000 four-year students in this cohort who enrolled in a for-profit school — a mere 31% — graduated eight years after enrolling.

3. Graduation rates for Pell Grant recipients are still troubling, even with more time to complete.

Lastly, this data only highlights what those of us working in higher education have always known: that low-income students face massive inequities when it comes to their likelihood of making it to and through college. When Pell graduation rate data came available for the first time last year, my Pell Divide report found an 18-percentage point graduation gap between first-time, full-time Pell students at four-year institutions and their non-Pell peers. However, this new data finds that this gap has widened to 21-percentage points — and that’s even when giving students eight years to graduate, as opposed to just six. When accounting for part-time and transfer students, the Pell gap shrinks to 9 percentage points, a welcome, but still unacceptable gap when it comes to how well institutions are serving the students who benefit from a college degree the most. And while two-year schools and the for-profit sector broadly have much smaller gaps, that’s because their graduation rates for students across the board are so much lower to begin with.

Though the numbers are troubling, the release of this data is the step in the right direction to understanding the likelihood of student success in higher education. But, the data is still lacking given our inability to know what happens to the transfer-out population — 25% of the students in the cohort — and their likelihood to successfully transfer and graduate elsewhere. Luckily, the bipartisan College Transparency Act continues to gain support, getting us closer to achieving the data we need to get an even fuller picture of outcomes in higher education. Which is much needed because if there’s anything this new data shows, it’s that we need as much information as possible to help more students make it to graduation day with a diploma in hand.