College Completion Rates Are Improving, But Not for All Students

Part-time students, who are disproportionately BIPOC and 25 years old and over, still complete college at lower rates.
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  • An average of 36% of college students completed their four-year degree on time in 2020, an increase of 5 percentage points from five years prior.
  • While the six-year completion rate for all students was 69% in 2022, part-time students' completion rate was 21%.
  • Black and Latino/a students ages 25 and older, enrolled part time, or attending community college consistently have lower-than-average completion rates.

College completion rates are on the rise. Between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of college students who completed their degree on time at public four-year and two-year institutions increased by 5 and 6 percentage points, respectively, according to a new report from Complete College America (CCA).

The national alliance, which includes higher education systems and institutions in more than 40 states and U.S. territories, looked at graduation and retention rates among its participants for this report.

It found that in 2020, an average of 36% of students at public four-year institutions and 16% of students at public two-year institutions earned their degree or certificate within 100% of the expected time.

By comparison, just five years earlier, 31% of students at public four-year institutions and only 10% of students at public two-year institutions did the same.

The report's state-by-state analysis also revealed that on-time completion rates at public four-year institutions during the period increased or stayed the same in all states and territories except Vermont and Puerto Rico. At public two-year institutions, on-time completion rates only decreased in Florida and Puerto Rico.

Despite overall noteworthy gains, completion rates are still lower for part-time students, students who are Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), students 25 years old and older, and community college students.

As of 2022, all students attending four-year institutions had a six-year completion rate of 69%. But for students who attend exclusively part time, that rate dropped to 21%.

A September CCA report on part-time students found that four years after enrolling at four-year flagship institutions in 2011-2012, full-time students graduated at a rate 15 percentage points higher than part-time students (49% vs. 34%).

Even eight years after enrolling in 2011-2012 at four-year flagship institutions, part-time students were still significantly less likely to have earned their degree or certificate compared to full-time students (47% vs. 85%).

In addition to being enrolled part time, these students are also disproportionately BIPOC, 25 years old and over, and attending community colleges.

As of 2021, fewer than 4 in 10 Black and Latino/a students ages 25 and over completed their four-year degree within six years. The same is true for Black and Latino/a community college students.

Completion rates were even lower when only looking at part-time community college students. Overall, fewer than 1 in 5 of these students (19%) earned a degree or certificate within six years, as of 2021. For Black and Latino/a part-time community college students, just 14% completed school in six years.

To improve outcome measures for these groups of students and increase completion rates across the board, CCA suggests that in addition to identifying gaps in retention, age, and race, institutions should spend more time helping students align academic aspirations with career goals and improve the structure of attaining worthwhile credits toward degrees.

Overall, CCA researchers still believe that completion rates are on the right path, especially when considering setbacks that occurred as a result of the pandemic.

"Before COVID-19, states, systems and institutions were making significant progress toward accelerating completion and eliminating disparities based on race and ethnicity," Charles Ansell, vice president of research, policy, and advocacy at CCA, said in a press release.

"This analysis provides hard data that should encourage higher education leaders to continue their reform work to ensure that the completion movement reaches every campus and, eventually, every learner."