Home Accountability Undergraduate Degree Earners Remain Steady in 2020
Undergraduate Degree Earners Remain Steady in 2020

Undergraduate Degree Earners Remain Steady in 2020


In a newly issued report, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that the total of 3.7 million new undergraduate degree earners was flat in the 2019-2020 academic year for the first time in eight years. Even more alarming, while the total numbers remained the same, the number of first-time graduates decreased 1 percent (26,000), while non-first-time completers continued to increase by 2.7 percent.

Much of the loss in first-time graduates comes from associate degree (-3.9 percent) and certificate recipients (-5.0 percent) in the late spring of 2020. Clearinghouse researchers believe the decrease is attributable to the impact of COVID-19 on community college enrollments. In the year prior, first-time associate degree earners declined, but the pandemic appears to have accelerated that decline.

Over the eight years that the National Student Clearinghouse has tracked college graduates, graduates with prior awards (certificates or degrees) have grown by nearly 170,000 students while first-time graduates have only increased by 53,000 students over the same period. Stacked credential earners represented 26 percent of all degree earners in 2019-20.

First-time graduates comprise 74 percent of the overall degree earners. Bachelor’s degree earners comprise 41 percent of the pool, followed by associate degree earners at 20 percent and certificate earners at 12 percent. First-time bachelor’s degree earners increased 1.9 percent in 2019-20 (+28,000).

In addition, the number of traditional-aged (<25) bachelor’s students actually increased 2.9 percent (+35,000), while all other older age groups declined. Tradition-aged associate degree earners declined (-2.6%) for the first time since 2012.

Bachelor’s degree earners with prior associate degrees drove the 2.7 percent overall growth in graduates with stacked credentials. These students, who transferred from community colleges to four-year schools, increased by 3.9 percent, representing an increase year-over-year of 17,000 graduates.

Given the Fall 2020 decline in community college enrollments, the Clearinghouse researchers write that the decline in associate degree graduates will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

Looking at the data, I am curious about the decline in first-time graduates by age at graduation for all age groups over than the traditional under-25 group. Based on the data, this finding is part of a longer trend that has seen the age 25 and older group steadily decline from 961,000 in 2012-13 to 723,000 in 2019-20.

Interestingly, the non-first-time graduates increased over the same period from 795,000 in 2012-13 to 965,000 in 2019-20. The Clearinghouse report does not break out this data by age group, but I am curious if this group trends older with students taking breaks after earning a certificate or associate degree before returning to complete an associate or bachelor’s degree.

For advocates of stacked credentials, the data seems to support a positive trend in graduates who choose that path. Certificates reported by the institutions submitting data to the National Student Clearinghouse are limited to certificates awarded by Title IV, degree-granting U.S. institutions. Given that fact, it’s likely that there is no “official” way to collect information on stacking credentials earned at boot camps, corporate training certified by the American Council on Education (ACE), or other non-Title IV institutions.

Given the expected decline in traditional-age college students across the U.S., it will be interesting to see how the mix of first-time graduates changes over the next few years as that enrollment decline flows through the undergraduate years. Any change in college financial aid policies such as the Biden proposal of free community college could impact this data as well.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.


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