Recession led to an enrollment boom, but not a graduation boom

Larger enrollments, lower completion rates

See EAB's expert comment on the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center's study.

More first-time students than ever before enrolled in college in 2008, but only a small percentage of them graduated within six years, according to the third report in a series from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Researchers used information from a database tracking 96% of U.S. enrollments to examine the completion rates of students who entered postsecondary education as the economic downturn began. The report provides the first long-term, overarching data regarding the recession's effect on college completion, reports Inside Higher Ed.

From 2007 to 2008, the number of incoming students jumped from 2.4 million to 2.7 million, but only 55% had earned degrees or certificates by May 2014. The 2007 group rounded out six years with a 56.1% completion rate.

The findings come at a time when the White House and institutions themselves have been increasing completion efforts.

Older and part-time students faced rising costs and competing demands of college, families, and jobs. The number of students 21 or older increased 20% from 2007 to 2008, possibly because of layoffs across industries and states, but for those older than 24, completion rates fell 1.4 percentage points. One factor that may be driving the trend: The influx of at-risk students who tended to struggle more, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"A lot of colleges are doing all they can to keep students on track to graduate," says Doug Shapiro, the center's executive research director. "We were a little surprised that the student demographics won out over the improved institution efforts."

Completion rates varied among student segments:

  • For students 21 to 24, the completion rate fell 2.6 percentage points; and
  • The completion rate for students who transferred from a two-year community college to a four-year institution dropped 1 percentage point.

Completion rates also varied among institution segments:

  • Nonprofit, four-year institutions boasted the highest completion rate, at 73.6%;
  • Public, four-year institutions had a stable 62.8% completion rate;
  • Four-year, private institutions improved their completion rate by 0.7 percentage-points; and
  • Community colleges had a 39% completion rate.

The differences in mission and student populations at various types of institutions must be taken in to account when comparing completion rates, write the authors. Additionally, they argue that expanding programs that make tuition and fees more affordable will increase students' chances of graduating by allowing them to study full-time.

Data shortcomings to take into consideration

During this time, completion efforts were "just getting going when this cohort was enrolling," too early to affect their outcome, argues David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Related: Hear EAB experts discuss college access and retention

"A lot of people enrolled hoping it would help them get another job or because they were unemployed and didn't have other options, but the financial and other realities were too much for them," he says.

The data also does not account for the opinion by many that students who entered the workforce because of layoffs, and subsequently left when a job opportunity arose, should not be counted as dropouts (Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/18; Fain, Inside Higher Ed, 11/18; Adams, "College Bound," Education Week, 11/18).

EAB's take

Ed Venit

Ed Venit, Student Success Collaborative

The Great Recession produced a well-documented upswing in enrollment, and it makes sense that we would see a corresponding decrease in completion rates as economic conditions improve and erstwhile students return to work.

It’s also telling that the sharpest declines were felt among two-year schools and for-profit colleges, segments with a traditional focus on workforce and continuing education.

That all said, these events are relatively small fluctuations in what has been a decades-long trend of disappointing flat completion rates across nearly all segments of higher education. It’s true that colleges and universities are doing more and more in an effort to support their students as the pressure to improve heats up, so why aren’t we able to move the dial?  

One could argue that the increase in the number of students from populations with historically lower rates of success has left us running harder and harder just to stay in place. But we also encourage our member institutions to examine how their retention strategy lines up with their observed patterns of attrition. 

The strategy at most schools is heavily weighted to support first-year retention, while half or more of all attrition is actually occurring in the second year or later, with the majority of these later-stage dropouts leaving in good academic standing. 

We’ve come to call this population “The Murky Middle,” and we think that many schools could see meaningful gains from expanding their retention strategy to include these often-overlooked students.


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