Grim Statistics About College Completion

By Sarah Wright

college completion rates non-traditional students

Not a Pretty Picture

Previously, we took a broad look at the 'Time is the Enemy' report released by Complete College America, a nonprofit organization whose sole mission is to increase the number of Americans with a postsecondary degree, certificate or other credential. This is in line with President Obama's goal, and it also seems to line up with a general goal among citizens. According to the study, the years between 1970-2009 saw college enrollment rates double. But as 'Time is the Enemy' points out, completion rates aren't lining up with this encouraging enrollment figure.

The study set out to examine the reasons why this disparity between enrollment and completion exists. As we previously discussed, a main focus in the study is the distinction between traditional and non-traditional students, and how that distinction reveals some important truths. It turns out that 'traditional' students are no longer in the majority, and 'nontraditional' students, who often aren't considered as a discrete group in official facts and figures about college completion success, are among those who face the biggest challenges on the road to graduation.

Time is the Enemy

The report makes no bones about it, beginning with the title - the longer it takes to finish college, the lower a student's chance of graduation success. This presents quite a conundrum considering the fact that the new majority of 'non-traditional' students include those who attend school part time for many reasons, such as the need to juggle work and families along with school. It may seem contrary to logic, but having more time to go to school does not set the stage for success. The statistics are striking in this regard:

  • 27.8% of full-time students in 1-year certificate programs graduate, while only 12.2% of part-time students successfully completed these programs.
  • Only 7.8% of part-time students in 2-year associate's degree programs graduate, while 18.8% of full-time associate's degree students succeed in graduating.
  • Most dramatically, 60.6% of full-time 4-year bachelor's degree students earn their degrees, while their part-time counterparts only graduate 24.3% of the time.

These grim statistics don't break down in a very encouraging way, either. Older students (25 years+), African Americans, Hispanics and low-income students (those receiving Pell grants) presented particularly low graduation rates when attending on a part-time basis. In some cases, less than 5% of students in these groups successfully complete their degree programs.

Moving Forward

College completion is important, not only to meet goals set by politicians, but in order to have a more educated populace. As Complete College America points out on its website, taxpayers are some of the most invested stakeholders in public colleges and universities. It makes sense to pay off this investment with more college graduates. In the 'Time is the Enemy' report, Complete College America outlines a variety of solutions to the problem of low college completion, all centering on the idea of accommodating the new majority of students.

On its website, the organization points to state governments, rather than federal offices, as the bodies with the most power to make positive changes in college completion rates. In the report, certain states are called out for their efforts to help part-time and other 'non-traditional' students succeed. For example, Tennessee has a program that helps students at the state's 27 public technical colleges balance work and school. With an organization like Complete College America attacking the problem of low graduation rates with more than just hand wringing, there may be cause for optimism when considering the future of college students in the U.S.

To learn more about the 'Time is the Enemy' study, check this post detailing the plight of nontraditional students.

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