EAB's take: Despite nationwide efforts, graduation rates drop

'This is a blip,' says one professor

See EAB's take on the New York Times article.

The proportion of students who entered college in 2009 and graduated by 2015 declined across every kind of institution and every kind of student, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).

The report is particularly meaningful because 2009—the year those students entered—was also the year that President Obama issued a completion challenge to the nation's colleges.

Among students who first started college in 2009, about 53% graduated by 2015—two percentage points lower than students who started in 2008. More students also left without earning a degree from this cohort: 33%, compared with the 2008 cohort's 30%.

For students who started at four-year public institutions, the completion rate fell 1.7 percentage points from the 2008 cohort, and for those at private, nonprofit four-year institutions, it fell 2.1 points.

However, the overall number of graduates increased by about 71,000 students, because so many more people started college in 2009.

For Doug Shapiro, executive research director at NSC, these numbers tell the story of people seeking temporary refuge from a recession.

Related: How three higher ed leaders think about student success

"Many of these students may have chosen to leave college—whether they had a degree or not—if there was a better job waiting for them in the improving economy," Shapiro told Marketplace. Alternately, he says, students may have been pushed out by rising tuition or cutbacks to student services in the wake of the recession.

National completion efforts are still new, says Vincent Tinto, professor emeritus at Syracuse University. But he is confident that they will pay off in the future. "Wait to see the further cohorts, and I think you'll see this is a blip," he says (Scott, Marketplace, 11/17; Korn, Wall Street Journal, 11/17; Marcus, Hechinger Report, 11/17).

EAB's take

Ed Venit

Ed Venit, Student Success Collaborative

As commentators have noted, some share of the reported decline can be explained by students who entered higher education as a refuge from the tough economy of 2009 but returned to the workforce without degree as conditions improved. That said, we wonder if the decline was exacerbated by student service cutbacks resulting from institutional belt-tightening occurring at the same time.

Moreover, there are larger trends—extending back at least a decade—indicating that students are increasingly coming from less well-prepared and less-affluent backgrounds. This is evident in standardized test scores, which have been on the decline in recent years at all but the most selective schools.

Absent additional support efforts, these demographic shifts will translate to lower graduation rates in the coming years. Most institutions are unable to commit large amounts of new funding to student success efforts, thus our SSC research agenda in 2016 will be focused on surfacing and sharing the best ideas for reorganizing efforts to operate more effectively with a minimum of additional expenditure.

Read Ed's recent post on the Student Success Insights blog:
What health care can teach us about student success

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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