The U.S.’s national college completion rate has remained stagnant, with rates even falling for some populations, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).Dr. Doug ShapiroDr. Doug Shapiro

The Completing College 2023 report – the 12th report in the series – tracked and illustrates trends in six-year college completion rates, both on a national and state-by-state basis. This year’s edition examined enrollment and completion for college students who started in Fall 2017 through June 2023, a cohort of approximately 2.4 million students.

NSC’s researchers found that, on a national level, the six-year completion rate for students who began college in Fall 2017 was 62.2%, the same as those who began in Fall 2015.

“Completion rates for the nation have stalled overall,” said NSCRC executive director Dr. Doug Shapiro, vice president of research. “They’ve been essentially flat for the third year in a row now. And that’s following five years of gains prior.”

The 62.2% includes 11% of students who transferred and completed their credential at a different school from where they started, he said.

Differentiated by school type, the trends demonstrated more fluctuation. All the four-year college sectors – public four-year, private nonprofit four-year, and private for-profit four-year – saw declines when compared with outcomes from the 2015 cohort, with decreases ranging from 0.4% to 1.6%. Public two-year schools, however, saw a 1.2% increase in the same period.

These general sector trends held true for the Fall 2016 cohort as well, with public two-year colleges being the only sector to see some improvement, 43.1% to 43.4%.

“What appears to account for this decline at four-year institutions is not that more students are taking longer than six years to finish,” Shapiro said. “When we compare the six-year rates and eight-year rates, and we look at who’s still enrolled at the end of six years, what we see is that more students are stopping out altogether.

“So we’re not saying the pandemic seems to have slowed these students down and they’re likely to take longer to finish. … That doesn’t look like the case. What we’re seeing is that more have stopped out altogether.”

Approximately 710,000 students from the 2.4 million-student cohort stopped out, meaning they are no longer enrolled anywhere, said Jennifer Causey, senior research associate at the NSC.

On a state level, six-year completion rates rose in more than half of U.S. states, the report authors found. Nine states saw increases of 1% or more, a rise from the 2016 cohort’s five. Meanwhile, four states saw declines of 1% or more, Causey said.

States that had rates rise from the previous year include Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, and Virginia. Georgia, Florida, New York, and Massachusetts were some of the states that instead saw declining six-year completion rates.

Similar stagnation was discernable for various racial and ethnic demographics. Asian, white, Hispanic student completion rates stayed about the same from last year. Black students saw a 0.5% decrease – 43.9% to 43.4% – and Native American students faced the largest decrease of the period, 2%, from 49.5% to 47.5%.

“The declines and stalled completion rates were [the case for] students of all race and ethnic categories,” Shapiro said.

Continuing trends all the way back to 2011, Asians continue to have the highest six-year college completion rates (74.8%), followed by white students (68.5%).

In terms of gender, outcomes from the fall 2017 cohort gave rise to the widest gender gap in completion rates since 2008 – a 7.2% gap compared to 2008’s 7% gap. As an overall constant though, women continue to complete their postsecondary pursuits at higher rates than men.

Older college students – those older than age 24 – seem to be finishing college at gradually higher rates, now at 52% from 2015’s 50.5%. On the other hand, younger students – those either 20 and younger or between 21-24 – exhibited more or less the rates that the fall 2015 cohort did, with slight decreases.

Additionally, the researchers looked at completion rates for students who began their postsecondary pursuits in 2015, finding that the national eight-year completion rate also saw a decline, from 65.2% to 64.7%.