US – Declines in completion rates across ages and enrollment intensities

The official end of the Great Recession is considered to be June 2009 (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2010). However, its effects on employment, wages, and family finances have lingered, impacting students and their colleges and universities through 2009, and well beyond. This year’s completions report clearly shows the continuing effects of recession on the fall 2009 cohort:

  • The overall size was larger still: at over 2.9 million, there were 8 percent more students in 2009 than in fall 2008.
  • There was an even higher growth in the number of older students (over age 24 at first entry): 24 percent more than in fall 2008.The share of the cohort enrolling at less than full-time status increased by another half of a percentage point.
  • The share of the cohort enrolling in community colleges grew an additional 1.3 percentage points.
  • The continuation of each of these trends clearly points to an expectation that completion rates would decline further as well, which is precisely what we observed.


Acceleration of the Decline in Overall Completion Rates

The overall national six-year completion rate for the fall 2009 cohort was 52.9 percent, a decline of 2.1 percentage points from the fall 2008 cohort, or twice the rate of decline that we observed in last year’s report when we compared the 2007 cohort to the 2008 cohort. Combined with a small decrease in the percent of students who were still enrolled in their sixth year without having earned a degree (less than one percentage point), the rate at which students were no longer enrolled in the final year of the study period increased 2.7 percentage points, from 30.3 percent for the fall 2008 cohort to 33.0 percent for the fall 2009 cohort. Despite the fall 2009 cohort’s lower rate of completion, the total number of graduates it produced six years later still increased (by about 71,000 students) because the fall 2009 cohort was much larger than that of fall 2008. The number of students from the 2009 starting cohort who left college without a credential or continuing enrollment in the sixth year also grew, by 153,000 students.

Examining the results by age and enrollment intensity reveals that all student populations experienced declines in their attainment rates. Nonetheless, some groups had larger declines than others. In particular, older students and exclusively full-time students experienced some of the largest drops in completion rates.

Declines in Completion Rates across Ages and Enrollment Intensities

We examined postsecondary outcomes for students in three age groups: those who began postsecondary education immediately after high school (age 20 or younger), those who delayed entering college for a few years (over age 20 through 24), and adult learners (over age 24). Compared to the fall 2008 cohort results, the decline in completion rates was largest for the delayed entry group, which fell 4.7 percentage points (from 38.3 to 33.6 percent). Adult learners experienced a decrease of 2.9 percentage points (from 42.1 to 39.2 percent) compared to a decrease of only 0.75 percentage points for the traditional-age group (from 59.3 to 58.6 percent).

Both of the older age groups also showed declines within each of the three enrollment intensity categories. The largest declines were among exclusively full-time students, who showed decreases of 9.2 percentage points in the delayed entry group and 7.2 percentage points among adult learners. These patterns were consistent when we examined the results for men and women separately. Within each gender group, the decline in the completion rate among exclusively full-time students was larger than the declines for part-time or mixed enrollment students. The same was also true among traditional-age students, by far the cohort’s largest age group, where the completion rate for those enrolled exclusively full time fell 1.1 percentage points, a steeper decline than for part-time or mixed enrollees.

Source: Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates – Fall 2009 Cohort | National Student Clearinghouse Research Center


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