What's the rate of students graduating in the US?
More students graduating suggest better retention policies. Source: AFP/Joshua Lott

US universities are recording their highest rate of completion since the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center started tracking during the fall 2006 cohort.

The new report, Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2012 Cohortfound that the overall national six-year completion rate reached 58.3 percent for the fall 2012 cohort. It is an increase of 1.5 percentage point from the previous year, making this the third year in a row the completion rate is going up.

“Coming on top of last year’s gains, these across-the-board improvements are some of the most encouraging data on student success that we’ve seen in a long time,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the Research Center.

“Retention and completion rates have increased because students have access to more of the programs, tools and support they need to succeed.”

Completion rate refers to the proportion of students that graduated out of the entire cohort that attended college in a particular intake. Reports like NSC’s track degree-seeking students who enrolled in fall 2012 and find out whether they have earned a degree or certificate within six years. It includes the students who transfer and complete their degree elsewhere too.

The number of students graduating came under fire last year, especially with two-year community colleges where the typical completion rate was found to be 38 percent and four-year for-profit colleges which reported a completion rate of 35 percent.

These are important information for students deciding what type of institutions – four-year vs two-year, public vs private, etc – to apply to. Completion rates give an indication of how successful a particular type of institution is when it comes retaining and ensuring their student cohorts graduate.

Fortunately, NSC’s report released last week shows there are more encouraging trends in the US higher education sector.

There are more students completing their degrees at the institutions they started at, the report found, reaching 46.9 percent this year, up 1.5 percentage point from the year before.

This is a trend that is observed in both two-year and four-year institutions, marking a shift towards a more “traditional student population”. The report credits colleges and universities’ improved student retention efforts as well as advising methods.

Black and Hispanic students who started at four-year public institutions had a completion rate that increased by 1.6 percentage points to 47.6 percent for black students, and 1.7 percentage points to 57.4 percent for Hispanic students.

What’s notable is that this is a growth rate that surpasses the Asian and white students (one percentage point), the groups that traditionally do better and complete university.

Yet, gaps persist. Asian and white students still graduate at much higher rates (76.7 percent and 72.1 percent, respectively) than black and Hispanic students.

“The rise in completion rates for black and Hispanic students is encouraging,” said Lorelle Espinosa, vice president for research at the American Council on Education.

“To close equity gaps, it will continue to be important to focus attention on strengthening those institutions that enroll the most black and Hispanic students, including the nation’s minority serving institutions.”

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