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Chuck Carney
Director, communications and media relations, IU School of Education

Last modified: Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Report: College completion rates higher in U.S. considering full scope of nontraditional pathways

Nov. 21, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.-- A new report issued by the Indiana University Project on Academic Success and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that when nontraditional student pathways are considered, many more U.S. students earn a college degree than is generally reported.

On a national scale, 42 percent of students entering a college or university in fall 2006 earned a degree or certificate from that same institution within six years. However, the report "Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates" found that when nontraditional pathways to a degree are taken into account, that rate increased to 54 percent. The study also found that over 75 percent of full-time students completed college within six years, higher than reported in previous studies.

"This report allows higher education policymakers to view students' enrollments across multiple institutions and even across multiple states," said Mary Ziskin, senior associate director for the Project on Academic Success. "In addition, it shows results for students who attended part time or full time throughout their studies, and also for the many students who enrolled full time during some terms and part time during others. Using this approach, the report provides a close look at the complexity of student pathways, and this makes a difference in how we understand college completion."

Ziskin and Vasti Torres, director of both the Project on Academic Success and the IU Center for Postsecondary Research and also professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the IU School of Education, are co-authors of the report. Other co-authors are Doug Shapiro, executive research director, and Afet Dundar, associate director, at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The other Project on Academic Success co-authors are research associates Jin Chen, Eunkyoung Park, and Yi-Chen Chiang

The report is based on student-level data, giving a more precise picture of how students navigate postsecondary education and better tracking where and when they earn degrees. The data comes from more than 3,300 participating colleges and universities that send information to the National Student Clearinghouse, covering nearly 97 percent of students attending public and private nonprofit postsecondary institutions.

Graduation rate calculations typically come from institution-based data, reflecting student retention within the same institution but not student persistence across multiple institutions. Examining student-level data gives a more accurate picture of actual student behavior. The new report also breaks from traditional studies of college completion that only consider first-time, full-time students who graduate from the same institution where they started.

Among the report's findings:

  • Within six years, 12 percent of the first-time students completed a degree or certificate at an institution other than the one where they started.
  • More than one in five students who completed a degree did so at an institution other than the one where they started. The number is closer to one in four for traditional-age students and more than one in three for those who started at public two-year institutions.
  • Out of the full starting cohort, 3.5 percent received a degree within six years in a state different from where they started, representing 6.5 percent of all completions.
  • Overall, 15 percent of two-year starters completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, and nearly two-thirds of those did so without first obtaining a two-year degree. Community colleges do not receive any credit for the success of these students under traditional graduation rate measures.
  • Gains from completions elsewhere were greater for traditional-age students (age 24 or younger at first entry) than for older students. Overall, there was a large gap between the completion rates of younger and older students, with the older students having a much lower six-year completion rate of 42 percent, versus 57 percent for younger students.
  • Breaking apart the outcomes by age and enrollment intensity showed that older students who enrolled exclusively part time actually had a higher completion rate than traditional-age part-time students. But overall, two-thirds of all exclusively part-time students, a group that made up only 7 percent of the cohort, stopped out without receiving any postsecondary credential in the final year of the study.

This report is the fourth in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's Signature Report series. The Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the exchange and understanding of student enrollment, degree and certificate records on behalf of its more than 3,300 participating higher education institutions. The Signature Reports focus on important issues related to students' college access and progress nationwide.

The Project on Academic Success is part of the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University and conducts practice- and policy-oriented research on opportunity and equity in postsecondary education and the multiple pathways of 21st-century students toward postsecondary academic success. The Project on Academic Success research team brings a diversity of specialties including student financial aid policy, college choice, enrollment management, and racial and gender equity. The Project on Academic Success has published numerous reports in the past regarding student persistence trends, the effects of debt on student success outcomes and institutional practices enhancing student academic success.