• August 28, 2015

Half of All First-Time Students Earn Credentials Within 6 Years

Of students who entered higher education in 2003-4, about half had earned degrees or certificates by June 2009, says a report from the U.S. Department of Education. As for the rest, 15 percent were still enrolled, and 36 percent had left higher education.

The "first look" report, "Persistence and Attainment of 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students: After 6 Years," looks at a nationally representative sample of students who entered college for the first time in 2003-4. The report examines how they fared at their initial institutions, and also whether they earned academic credentials during that time period.

By the end of the six-year period, 9 percent of the students earned certificates, 9 percent associate degrees, and 31 percent bachelor's degrees. The numbers are similar to those of the last cohort the department followed, which began college in 1995-6.

Among students who began at public two-year colleges, 9 percent earned certificates, 14 percent associate degrees, and 12 percent bachelor's degrees. Among those who began at four-year colleges, 2 percent received certificates, 5 percent associate degrees, and 58 percent bachelor's degrees.

The report also looks at students' outcomes at the first institution they attended. Eight percent earned certificates, 9 percent associate degrees, and 22 percent bachelor's degrees from their initial institution within six years. Of those who did not earn credentials at their original colleges, 6 percent were still enrolled there, 27 percent had transferred, and 28 percent had left without enrolling elsewhere.

Those numbers reinforce the idea that many of today's students "swirl" among institutions. The federal graduation rate for colleges does not account for transfer students.

The report also breaks the data down by students' race, age, and family income, among other categories. It shows, for instance, that part-time students continue to fare worse than their peers: 71 percent of part-time students had left higher education without degrees after six years, compared with 30 percent of those who attended full time.


1. archman - December 01, 2010 at 04:39 pm

So what is the take-home message here? That college is not for everyone? What a shocker. Oh wait, Congress still hasn't got that memo...

On the depressing side, I do not look forward to administrators using this report to continue boosting my class enrollments. As it appears that swelled college admittance has not compromised graduation rates, packing in more kids into classrooms is arguably just fine.

I do like the analysis showing part-time college enrollment to generally be not very successful. Food for thought for those of us that advise students.

2. bstevens - December 01, 2010 at 06:35 pm

If this is based on first-time-full-time students, it is still far from accurate. Does it account for students who started at one college and finished at another? This is becoming the norm, so it must be considered.

3. impossible_exchange - December 01, 2010 at 08:28 pm

So what?
Completion is not the goal.
Education is the goal.

4. jpredington - December 02, 2010 at 01:04 am

bstevens is right - until data for transfers and first-time Spring entrants is actually collected and considered, any statistics circulated by the feds is essentially meaningless.

5. vapensant - December 02, 2010 at 08:10 am

bstevens, these results are based on the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, which includes all first time students in postsecondary education, no matter whether full time or part time or whether they start in a community college or a research 1 institution. It follows student progress through postsecondary education across as many institutions as they attend during the 6 year follow up period. The institutional graduation rates that rely on first-time, full-time students are from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, and are for single institutions only.

6. drmhp - December 02, 2010 at 09:49 am


"So what?
Completion is not the goal.
Education is the goal."

Aside from the fact that "education for education's sake" is a noble, yet not at all practical goal (i.e., the strongest predictor of student loan default is non-completion). Wouldn't students who stay in school long enough to complete a program get "more" education?

7. pwherry - December 02, 2010 at 02:35 pm

Yes, drmhp, students who stay longer would get more education. But I would agree with impossible-exchange that every little bit helps. I know Alexander Pope wrote a couple of centuries ago that "a little learning is a dangerous thing," but I'm happier as a tax-payer with any amount of education my fellow citizens can get. And I've seen research demonstrating that annual income goes up for each year of education beyond high school--even just one.

Re: part-timers dropping out--that shouldn't be news. Usually the life conditions that make part-time attendance the only option are the same life conditions that eventually derail progress. If you have a job and a family and go to school part-time, then a family emergency or new demands on the job (transfer, new duties, promotion, lay-off) are going to keep you from completing your academic program.

8. molbiologist - December 03, 2010 at 07:24 am

Although education itself is never a bad idea, completion should be the preferred goal. With that in mind, why not structure the aid package to encourage continuation? For example, if a student would be eligible for $40K over four years, half grants and half loans, why not make the first year aid a $10K loan, second year $7.5K loan and 2.5K grant, third year 2.5K loan and 7.5K grant, and 4th year 10K grant? My college-student children have each had several friends who had excellent grades and wanted to finish their degrees,but had family financial circumstances which forced them to drop out after 2-3 years. We'd be much better off spending grant money on these kids rather than the C+ high-school senior who's pushed into college by a school system wanting to make their statistics look good, only to drop out after a year. I'm pretty sure that C+ student would think long and hard about whether college is for them before signing their $10K promissory note.

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