College Completion Rates Drop for Second Year in a Row, Report Reveals

The percentage of college students who graduate within six years of entering their degree program has dropped again this year, according to a report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Only 52.9 percent of those who enrolled in 2009 earned a degree by 2015.

This national six-year completion rate is down 2.1 percent from last year’s results, which looked at U.S. students who enrolled in 2008, and is double that of last year’s decline. This year, though, graduation rates fell at every type of institution and across all student subgroups.

However, rates vary greatly depending on the type of student. Not surprisingly, graduation rates were the highest for traditional-age college students, who were at 58.6 percent. For those who enrolled in college between the ages of 20 and 24, the graduation rate was 33.6 percent, and for those who enrolled after the age of 24, it was 39.2 percent — down 4.7 and 2.9 percentage points, respectively, from the previous year.

Graduation rates also varied by type of institution. Rates declined 1.7 percent for students who enrolled at four-year public colleges (61.2 percent) and 2.1 percent for students at four-year private colleges (71.5 percent). The completion rate for students attending two-year colleges dropped only slightly, from 39.1 to 38.1 percent (15.1 percent of students had transferred and finished a degree program at a four-year college).

The largest drop of all was seen at four-year for-profit colleges, where completion rates fell from 38.4 to 32.8 percent.

While completion rates dropped across the board, the total number of students who graduated within six years of enrolling in 2009 was about 71,000 higher than the class that enrolled in 2008. This is attributed, in part, to enrollment growth among older students.

Scrutiny over graduation rates has increased in recent years as lawmakers debate ways to make college more affordable and ensure taxpayers get a return on their investment; it is also attributed to data revealing that students who don’t complete their degree programs are more likely to default on student loans. These students have a delinquency rate of 43.5 percent — more than double that of students who complete an associate degree and four times that of those who hold a bachelor’s degree, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.