Blog Post | December 2, 2010

New and More Complete Data on College Outcomes

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) just released new data on six-year college persistence and graduation rates for students who began college in 2003-04. These data provide a rarely seen glimpse of how beginning college students fare within six years of college enrollment, regardless of whether they enroll full- or part-time or whether they change schools. The data present a more complete picture of college outcomes than the annual graduation rates calculated through IPEDS, which look only at first-time, full-time students and only count completions at the first institution attended. For example, these new data show that 39 percent of all beginning college students completed a degree or certificate at their first institution within six years, but another 11 percent obtained a degree or certificate within that time period at a different institution.

Overall, the new data confirm a number of completion trends that researchers have consistently found: full-time students are more likely to persist and/or complete (70 percent) than part-time students (29 percent), as are students who go to college soon after high school (73 percent) compared to those who delay enrollment (51 percent). The data also further document that students who enroll at for-profit colleges have less favorable outcomes than those enrolling at other colleges. Students who started at for-profit colleges in 2003-04 were much less likely to persist and/or complete than those who started at other types of colleges. More than three-quarters of students starting at public and non-profit four-year colleges persist and/or complete (78 percent and 81 percent, respectively), compared to less than half of students who first enrolled at for-profit 4-year colleges (45 percent).

Students starting at public and nonprofit 2-year colleges have roughly comparable persistence and completion rates (54 and 57 percent respectively) as those starting at for-profit 2-year colleges (49 percent), but students from public and nonprofit colleges are more likely to complete credentials with higher value. Twelve percent of students starting at community colleges ended up completing a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to almost no students (0.5 percent) at for-profit 2-year colleges.1 The majority of college completions at community college are associate’s degrees, while the majority of college completions at for-profit colleges are certificates below the associate’s degree level.2 While this new dataset doesn’t break down certificates by length, other data suggest that about half of the certificates awarded by for-profit colleges are less than one year in length – short-term certificates with questionable value in the workforce.

These low completion and persistence rates, along with completions of little value, are especially significant because almost all students attending for-profit colleges take out student loans – more than students at other types of colleges – and have to repay that debt regardless of whether they complete.3

We will continue to mine these new data over the coming months. The last time this type of data was available was eight years ago, for students who began college in 1995-96.

Note: This blog post was revised on June 15, 2011. The initial December post was based on a published NCES report, and the full survey data on which the NCES report was based has since been released. This allowed for more detailed analysis, which is reflected above.

1 Calculations by The Institute for College Access & Success on data from U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2003-04 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, Second Follow-up (BPS:04/09).

2 Calculations by The Institute for College Access & Success on data from the U.S. Department of Education, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

3 Calculations by The Institute for College Access & Success on data from the 2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS).