Credit Accumulation and Completion Rates Among First Year Students

The National Student Clearinghouse issued a report last week titled Credit Accumulation and Completion Rates Among First Year Students. The report was constructed by using data from the Clearinghouse’s Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP). The PDP captures much more information from its participating institutions than is normally submitted to the Department of Education and other public sources.

The 2022 PDP Insights report focuses on students’ first year credit completion ratio (CCR) and credit accumulation rate (CAR). The CCR is credits earned divided by credits attempted. The CAR measures how timely the students complete their credits. For example, how many first-year students earned 24 or more credits (federal definition of a full-time college student requires that 24 or more credits are earned)?

Students in the dataset used to construct the report are first-time in college and first-time transfer-in. There were 905,689 enrollments at 342 colleges and universities in the 2019-2020 cohort. Regardless of which term students entered their institution, they were tracked for one full year after initial enrollment. Because colleges opt into the PDP report, the Clearinghouse notes that this is not a nationally representative sample even though the sample size is relatively large.

Key findings from this year’s report include:

  • Students earn approximately 75 percent of the credits they attempt.
  • Only 51 percent of full-time students earned 24 or more of their credit hours in their first year. Less than a third earned 30 or more credit hours. The average student does not even attempt enough credit hours to graduate in four years. Given existing credit completion rates, the average student will not graduate in five years.
  • The largest gaps between students attempting and earning credits are across dimensions of gender, race/ethnicity, and enrollment intensity.
  • When considering first-year credit accumulation and course completion, prior beliefs seldom hold true. For example, transfer and non-transfer students generally attempted and earned credits at the same rate. Adult learners (over 24) generally realized lower CCR’s and CAR’s than their younger counterparts.

The graphic below shows the impact of the low credits attempted and earned.

It’s important to remember that these students were full-time students when they started, yet the average is less than the required 24 credit hours. Depending on where they land under the colleges’ Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements, some students may be restricted in how many credits they can attempt next year.

CCR’s varied by gender and race/ethnicity with the lowest CCR’s among first-year students being African American males (63.1%) and American Indian/Alaskan Native males (65.4%). The highest CCR’s were Asian males (81.0%) and Asian/Non-resident females (85.9%). There was also a wide variation in CCR’s when race/ethnicity was compared with enrollment intensity (full-time vs. part-time).

Institutions reported their students’ readiness for Math and English. In the chart below, you can see the CCR differences are the widest between students who are college ready for both English and Math and students who are not college ready for Math and English.

CCR by math and English placement

It would be interesting to see the data on which courses attempted were not completed, particularly for the group that was deemed not college ready in both Math and English. Intuitively, if they did not complete Math and/or English, their progression is likely to slow and impede completion.

There was also variance in the CCR across credentials being sought with the highest CCR among students seeking a four-year degree and the lowest among students seeking a two-year degree. My first thoughts were that four-year degree students intuitively are motivated to complete as many credits as possible given the length of the degree. However, the certificate students have a higher CCR than two-year degree students. See the chart below.

CCR by degree sought

The Clearinghouse researchers noted that it was important to sort the credit accumulation rate (CAR) between full-time and part-time students and between full-time students who earned 24 and 30 credit hours and part-time students who earned 12 and 15 credit hours in their first year. The chart below provides that overall breakout.

overall CAR

The results are interesting on a few fronts. Even though the Clearinghouse researchers remind the report’s readers that the group results are likely not representative of higher ed in general, to see that barely one-fourth of first year full-time students are on track to graduate in four years is disappointing. The results for part-time students are worse. Less than one-fourth of part-time students are on track to graduate in eight years.

There’s much more data in the report including more breakdowns on gender, race/ethnicity, enrollment intensity, etc. I found it interesting that most first-time, full-time students did not even attempt to take 30 credit hours in their first year. I would want to find out if that occurred because of advising that those students received.

For most part-time students who are not on track to graduate in eight years, I would like to examine how many of those students transferred credits and what the average number of credits transferred were. At APUS (online only), most of our students were part-time, and many transferred in credits. I published a paper that looked at the average time to completion at APUS (approximately 7 years) for part-time students and the average credits transferred in and determined that if all credits were earned at the same pace, the average time to complete a bachelor’s as a part-time student was 11 years. Many institutions that serve part-time students cap the time to complete a degree at eight or ten years. Institutions that serve primarily full-time students cap the time to complete a degree at five or six years.

The college readiness in Math and English data concerns me. There are many ways that institutions serve students who are not prepared for college. The threshold for this classification may differ between institutions. Regardless, institutions with a significant percentage of students in this category would be well-served by investigating the outcomes of those students who succeeded and determine if there was a successful intervention of some kind that could be replicated.

I commend the National Student Clearinghouse for examining the first-year credit completion ratio and the credit accumulation rate. For researchers in the field of college retention and completion, the data is a useful benchmark but likely triggers more questions than it answers. For colleges whose numbers are below the averages published in this report, I would investigate ways in which other colleges have improved their student outcomes.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence