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.