Fewer students are earning a college credential within six years after first enrolling, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
From Community College Daily:
Among students who started college at public two-year institutions, the total completion rate declined from 39.1 percent to 38.1 percent, counting completions that may have occurred at either a two-year or a four-year institution. The decline, however, was almost entirely among students completing at transfer institutions (0.9 percentage point drop). Among all two-year starters, 15.1 percent had completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, down from 16.2 percent for fall 2008 students.
This report is understandably attracting a lot of attention, especially given all the highly publicized efforts to boost completion rates nationwide.
By way of an explanation, the article reports that the numbers would have been much worse if it hadn't been for reform efforts. Such claims, even if true, are often greeted with skepticism.
However, something else might be going on, according to several media accounts and the NSCRC report. First, the most recent economic recession, which began in 2008, caused a major spike in college enrollments. When enrollments go up, completions tend to go down, unfortunately, as many of these new students are the least prepared academically. This phenomenon is comparable to those depressing statistics on declining SAT and ACT scores, which may be driven by more students taking the tests who would not have done so in previous years.
Second, as the economy improved from the depths of the recession, jobs became available again. As we all know, many community college students leave school to take a job.
So the poor graduation numbers can be accounted for with variables that have little or nothing to do with pedagogy, curriculum, technology, or other educational factors.
Perhaps most importantly, the new report underscores how difficult and complicated the effort to improve graduation rates can be. This is going to be a slow crawl and we shouldn't be surprised or discouraged.