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Home » About the Clearinghouse » Media Center » National Six-Year College Completion Rate Plateaus to 60.1%, According to New Research

Completion Progress Made Over Past Several Years Could Be Jeopardized

HERNDON, VA — (Dec. 3, 2020) —The national six-year completion rate appears to have reached a plateau, showing the smallest increase of the last five years, a 0.3 percentage point growth to 60.1 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Completing College: National and State Reports.

The latest data reveals a shifting college completion picture for the nation as well as states. The improvement in six-year completion rates had been slowing, from 2.2 percentage points (2010 to 2011 cohorts) to 1.4 percentage points (2012 to 2013 cohorts). This number is down to 0.3 percentage points for the latest 2014 cohort.

“The completions rate trend is flattening for traditional age students, who comprise the vast majority of the 2014 starting cohort,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “While adult completion rates continue to increase generally, the decline among community college starters, particularly Hispanic and Black students, threatens to reverse the improvements of the past several years.”

Far fewer states reported an increase in six-year completion rates, particularly among community college starters, than they did in the previous cohort year. In addition, the marginal increase in completion rates arising from the additional two years between the six- and eight-year outcomes has shrunk, resulting in a drop in the eight-year completion rate nationally as well as in all types of institutions.

In line with the national trend, public four-year completion rates rose in 32 out of 46 states for which sufficient data are available, while community college rates declined in 26 states out of 42 states.  However, the pace of improvement at public four-year colleges has slowed in 18 out of the 33 states that improved. Particularly, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah had gains that were two percentage points smaller than in the previous cohort.

For community college starters, far fewer states improved this year. Only 16 states increased their six-year community college completion rate by at least 0.5 percentage points, compared to 33 states in the previous cohort. Of these 16 states, only six states—Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, New Mexico, and South Dakota—saw improvement of more than 1 percentage point, compared to 27 states in the previous cohort year.

It is unlikely that either the six-year or eight-year completion rates reflected in this year’s report have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic because the degrees and certificates counted were all completed by June 2020. The Research Center’s COVID-19 Supplement Enrollment Report found very little enrollment effects during the Spring of 2020.

Report highlights include:

  • The national eight-year completion rate fell for the first time in three years, by 0.5 percentage points. Currently, the national eight-year completion rate stands at 61.3 percent for students who entered college in 2012, down from 61.8 percent in the previous cohort year.
  • Community colleges are the only institution type to experience a drop in the six-year completion rate, reversing the upward trends over the previous two cohort years. The six-year completion rate dropped slightly at community colleges (0.5 percentage points) after having risen for two consecutive years. Private nonprofit four-year institutions made a 0.2 percentage point gain, while public four-year colleges improved by 0.7 percentage points. For-profit four-year institution completion rates jumped 3.1 percentage points, marking an increase of over 10 percentage points in the last four years. But it has little impact on the national rate, as less than 2 percent of the cohort start at a for-profit four-year college.
  • The six-year completion rate of community college starters declined for Hispanic and Black students, despite previous growth. Only Asian students made gains, whose rate improved by 1.3 percentage points. Notably, Black students who started at public four-year institutions made stronger gains than white students.
  • States’ college completion patterns appear to be shifting. In line with the national trends, the six-year completion rate was slow to improve at the state level, now with more states experiencing a decline compared to last year, largely because of the decreases at community colleges in many states. Unlike the upward trends we reported last year, out of 42 states with sufficient data, 11 states have slipped for the fall 2014 cohort.

As the fall 2020 Stay Informed report shows, community colleges suffered the most from enrollment declines in the summer and the fall of 2020, revealing a looming enrollment crisis for community colleges in the age of COVID-19. If the community college enrollments and completions continue to trend downward during the pandemic, the steady progress in college completions made by the nation and most states over the past few years could be jeopardized.

The national completion rate counts all students who enter postsecondary education for the first time each year, enrolling full-time or part-time at two-year or four-year institutions, and completing at any U.S. degree-granting institution. It includes those who complete after transfer, not just completions at the starting institution. Thus, the results more fully capture today’s students’ diverse pathways to success, which increasingly involve mobility across institutions and across state lines, re-entry after stop-out, and changes in enrollment intensities.

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. To learn more, visit