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Home » About the Clearinghouse » Media Center » COVID-19 Impact: First-Time Associate Degree Earners Decline to Lowest Level Since 2012-13

Growth in Undergraduate Degree Earners Comes to a Standstill

HERNDON, VA – (Jan. 28, 2021) – Growth in undergraduate credential earners has come to a standstill for the first time in the eight years since the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center started tracking these data.

According to the latest Undergraduate Degree Earners’ report released today, 3.7 million new graduates in the 2019-20 academic year represent no growth from the previous year. First-time associate degree earners are now at the lowest level since 2012-2013. Associate degree earners dropped 6.7 percent within just a few months after campuses closed, and certificate earners fell even more, by almost 20 percent, demonstrating the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on community college students (Figure 5).

“This is the first time in the last eight years that we have seen a decline in the total number of students earning their first undergraduate credential, and it has been driven by drops in associate degree and certificate earners,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “In addition to the enrollment crisis facing community colleges reported in our COVID-19 Stay Informed and Transfer, Mobility and Progress reports, this suggests further declines to come in community college student degree attainment.”

First-time bachelor’s degree earners, however, increased 1.9 percent or nearly 28,000 more graduates over the previous year. This was an acceleration of the existing trend, as their numbers grew more in the early months of the pandemic than they did during the same months in the previous year (2.3% and 1.6%, respectively, as shown in Figure 5).

While first-time graduates decreased 1 percent, non-first-time completers, those earning stacked credentials, continued to increase, by 2.7 percent. These two groups of graduates have increasingly diverged over the last eight years. Graduates with prior awards grew by nearly 170,000 students, far outpacing first-time graduates who increased by 53,000 students over this period (Figure 2).

The Undergraduate Degree Earners report series, published annually, provides demographic and educational profile data for all students graduating with an undergraduate credential each year. Undergraduate credentials may include associate and bachelor’s degrees, and certificates. The report’s appendix provides state-level and regional trends, as well as national graduate profiles by age and type of credential received.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center™

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes.

The Research Center analyzes the data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions, which represent 97% of the nation’s postsecondary enrollments in Title IV degree-granting institutions in the U.S., as of 2018. Clearinghouse data track enrollments nationally and are not limited by institutional and state boundaries. To learn more, visit