A More Accurate Look at Completion Rates
A new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) demonstrates growing interest in modifying the student aid programs so they better promote completion and success, in addition to providing access.
Unfortunately, current college completion data collected by the U.S. Education Department (ED) fail to capture the whole picture, because they only include full-time students who complete college at the same institution where they began. Statistics about transfer students are not captured.
The NSCRC study examines data of “nontraditional student pathways,” which include students who change their enrollment status between part-time and full-time, students who transfer schools before completing a degree, or students who are part-time or adult learners.
Including these nontraditional pathways increases the overall U.S. college completion rates for all students (full-time and part-time) from 42 percent to 54 percent, according to NSCRC. The report notes that more than 75 percent of full-time U.S. students completed college within six years.
Experts say having good completion data will be increasingly important as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle consider policies that place a greater emphasis on student completion and success.
There will be a greater focus on access and completion as the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) moves forward, said Amy Raaf Jones, senior advisor and education policy counsel for the GOP-controlled House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Incorporating data that reflects the success of non-traditional students – like the data in the NSCRC report – will be a big focus as the next Congress moves forward on HEA reauthorization, she said. The report notes that only one-third of the entire cohort met the traditional profile of a college student.
This change in the higher education landscape will likely impact student aid policy, according to Spiros Protopsaltis, the senior education policy advisor for the Democrat-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He said that federal legislators and policymakers will need to examine access and completion when they discuss federal student aid policies.
- 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, raising the overall completion rate from 42 to 54 percent.
- More than one in five students who completed a degree did so at an institution other than the one where they started – students whose successful outcomes are invisible to traditional graduation rate calculations. 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.
Incorporating nontraditional student pathways may ensure that institutions are held “accountable for the success outcomes not only of their full-time students but also of their part-times students as well as students who change their enrollment status during their postsecondary career,” the authors write.
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