Measuring Equity Gaps in Completion
Completion is the measurement of whether students earn credentials (degrees and certificates) within six years after they first enroll in a postsecondary school. Completion rates count all students who enter postsecondary education for the first time each fall, including full-time and part-time students and enrollees in two-year or four-year institutions. This rate considers completions at any U.S. degree-granting institution, including completions of any undergraduate degree or certificate and completions after a student has transferred.
By tracking this broad range of students, institutions, and completion paths, we can capture students’ diverse pathways to success, which increasingly involve switching institutions, crossing state lines, reentering higher education after stop-out, and varying enrollment intensity (e.g., switching between full-time and part-time status).
The interactive graphics below show completion over time for different institution types and student demographics, as well as high school income level and school urbanicity. These views make it easier to identify trends and compare data for the populations of interest to your institution or organization.
To view specific categories or groups in a chart, simply select the name of the category or group to hide or display it.
Rates reflect the credentials students have earned within six years of enrollment. Thus, the endpoint for 2010 enrollees is summer 2016, for 2011 enrollees it is summer 2017, and so on. Completion rates remained relatively stable during the period shown, with female students achieving higher completion rates than male students across all races/ethnicities.
Across all races/ethnicities, students who enrolled in a postsecondary institution at age 20 or younger had higher completion rates than those who enrolled later in adulthood.
For all races/ethnicities, full-time students completed at dramatically higher rates than their part-time counterparts. Within enrollment types, completions remained relatively stable over time, even during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, the pandemic seems to have had a significant effect on the completion rates of Black students with mixed enrollment.
Comparison of the 2014 and 2015 cohorts of enrollees reveals that completion rates increased slightly for Black, Hispanic, Native American, and White students, with the largest jump among Black students. The completion rate for Asian students was virtually unchanged but remained the highest.
The gap between females and males in completion of science and engineering degrees increased from about 14% for students who enrolled in 2006 to about 17% for students who enrolled in 2016.
A Clearer Picture
Viewing basic completion trends, such as those shown in the graphics above, is only the first step.
Many factors affect college completion, so it’s important not only to analyze the data by student demographics and institutional type but also to understand the potential systemic barriers to staying in school.
This deeper analysis can identify specific barriers to — and opportunities for — achieving equity in education.
Income and Urbanicity
In the High School Benchmarks report, the Clearinghouse analyzes college completion rates by the urbanicity (urban, suburban, rural character) and income level and of the high schools students graduated from.
Although we have only a limited ability to look at these characteristics at the individual student level, we can gain some insights into these factors by combining publicly available information and the data that high schools provide to the Clearinghouse.
Thousands of high schools participate in the Clearinghouse’s StudentTracker® for High Schools service to receive college access and success outcomes for their own graduates. We combine these data with information about high school urbanicity and high school income level (from the National Center for Education Statistics).
It is important to look at disaggregated data to help us identify disparities. Often, more than one level of disaggregation is needed to unpack students’ intersectional characteristics. If you’re ready to dig deeper and start exploring student access, progression, and outcomes based on multiple intersecting categories, such as race, age, gender, first-generation status, and part-time or full-time student status, consider joining the Clearinghouse’s Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP).
Interested in learning more about equity gaps in completion?
- Completing College: National and State Reports (fall 2015 cohort)
- Undergraduate Degree Earners, Academic Year 2020-21
- Clearinghouse Blog Posts on Completion
- Racial and ethnic equity in US higher education: Completion rates – McKinsey & Company
- Understanding Equity Gaps in College Graduation – Urban Institute
- Beyond Completion: Post-Completion Efforts at Hispanic-Serving Institutions – Excelencia in Education
- Colleges sign on for a 15-step program to “erase equity gaps” in completion – The Hechinger Report
- Building on Completion Gains – Complete College America
*A note on racial/ethnic designations: Racial and ethnic categories and designations change over time. The Clearinghouse continually examines the way it categorizes and labels different races/ethnicities.
For purposes of clarity, two current designations deserve mention here:
- Hispanic: In recent years, the Clearinghouse has also used LatinX when discussing individuals of Latin heritage. However, Hispanic is the label most frequently used in data collected/reported over the past decade. For the sake of consistency in comparing data, we have opted to use Hispanic across this website.
- Additional races/ethnicities: This label may comprise American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Two or More Races, and International Students.
Learn more about Clearinghouse data collection, management, and limitations here.
The starting point in measuring — and ultimately achieving — equity in higher education is enrollment. No one can attain a degree without first getting access.
Persistence is the best metric we have for understanding whether groups of students stay in school. This measure shows how many students return to college at any institution for their second year.