College Completion Rates Rise for Sixth Straight Year

The national six-year college completion rate has risen steadily for the past six years, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
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  • Colleges and universities have emphasized growing graduation rates over the past decade.
  • Completion rates grew in the majority of states.
  • Completion rates increased at community colleges, public institutions, private nonprofit institutions, and private for-profit institutions.

The U.S. higher education system continues to make great strides in graduating its students thanks to efforts by schools and national nonprofits.

The national six-year completion rate for the most recent cohort of students grew to 62.2%, compared to 61% the previous year, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

This completion rate measures the percentage of students that started postsecondary education in the fall of 2015 and earned a degree by June 2021. It only looks at students who started college or university for the first time in their cohort year.

Six-year completion rates have grown annually since the 2009 cohort finished school in 2015.

Notably, the most recent graduation rates increased from the previous year at all four types of institutions counted:

  • Two-year community colleges: 1.5 percentage points
  • Public four-year institutions: 1 percentage point
  • Private for-profit four-year institutions: 0.5 percentage points
  • Private nonprofit four-year institutions: 0.4 percentage points

Community colleges may have reported the highest increase in completion rates, but their six-year completion rate remains the lowest of the four school categories at 42.2%. Public four-year schools graduated students within six years 69% of the time, private nonprofits did it 78.3% of the time, and private for-profits did it 46.4% of the time.

Many states also made good progress in increasing graduation rates. For the 2014 cohort, only 12 of 46 states with data available managed to increase their rates. However, 32 of 46 states did so with the 2015 cohort.

Even in states where six-year completion rates dropped, that drop wasn't drastic. Only Idaho, Oregon, and Tennessee reported drops greater than one percentage point.

Vermont and Rhode Island tied for states with the highest six-year completion rates at 74.4%. Alaska reported the lowest at 35.2%, but that's up 1.5 percentage points from the prior year.

There has been a growing effort over the past decade to retain students and limit both drop-outs and stop-outs — where a student temporarily withdraws from school but eventually re-enrolls. Programs like the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs and Degrees When Due from the Institute for Higher Education Policy have served as models for many schools.

The latest version of President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Act, which was slated to be his marquee domestic spending bill, included $500 million for states to invest in student retainment programs. However, the bill's status is in jeopardy, and it remains unclear if this funding could come from a different source.