Students are completing college on time at higher rates nationally at both four-year and two-year institutions, according to a new report by Complete College America, an organization dedicated to increasing college attainment rates. The report also found, however, that stubborn equity gaps persist.
The report, released today, notes that on-time completion rates at four-year universities rose 6 percent, as did on-time completion rates at two-year colleges, from 2016 to 2021. The vast majority of members of the CCA Alliance—which includes state higher education commissions, higher ed systems and organizations focused on graduating higher numbers of students—improved their on-time completion rates, and seven members more than doubled their on-time completion rates for two-year students in the last five years. The report draws on both publicly available data and data from CCA Alliance members.
“This research provides tangible data demonstrating that the reforms set in motion long before the pandemic were generating significant and measurable improvements in college completion,” Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of CCA, said in a press release. “To build on and sustain those completion gains, however, we need to be clear-eyed about the new challenges that threaten to wipe out this hard-fought progress. We must therefore stay the course and continue the laser focus on scaling proven structural reforms that work.”
The report describes enrollment declines, particularly those at community colleges, as an obstacle to improving completion rates and closing disparities in completion rates.
Among other equity gaps, fewer than 40 percent of Black and Latino students at community colleges earn a credential within six years, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Fewer than 20 percent of part-time community college students complete in six years. CCA data also show part-time students and older adult learners are retained at lower rates, and retention rates plummeted for older Indigenous students.
“Despite the setbacks caused by the pandemic, the completion movement is—and was—on the right track,” Charles Ansell, vice president of research, policy and advocacy at CCA, said in the release.
“Before COVID-19, states, systems and institutions were making significant progress toward accelerating completion and eliminating disparities based on race and ethnicity. This analysis provides hard data that should encourage higher education leaders to continue their reform work to ensure that the completion movement reaches every campus and, eventually, every learner.”