Why Is the College-Completion Rate Stagnating?

New data point to more problems for universities.

A college education is often touted as absolutely necessary if one is to achieve the American dream. Yet college-completion rates have stagnated in recent years. Given that enrollment rates have declined, as well, it is clear that American colleges and universities have their work cut out for them if they want to survive. Colleges are not simply educational institutions—they are businesses. Without paying students (and a federal government to subsidize those payments), colleges and universities run the risk of folding.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) recently published data concerning the national college-completion rate. That number has stagnated at 62.2 percent for students who started college in fall 2017, a similar outcome experienced by the last two cohorts, from 2015 and 2016.

No matter the cause, colleges will need to improve their completion rates in order to survive in the long term.The data also exhibited a widening gender gap, with 65.6 percent of women graduating in six years, while only 58.4 percent of men did the same. This represents the biggest gender divide since at least the cohort of 2008, the first tracked by NSCRC. While the news media constantly bombards the American public about a “patriarchy” that prevents women from succeeding, women are now consistently more likely to earn degrees than are men.

Alone among age groups, older students (24 years and up) made some gains in completion rates this time around, reaching 52 percent. But they still lagged behind the stagnating traditional cohort (20 years old and under), the completion rate of which dipped from 64 percent to 63.8 percent.

Stagnating completion rates coincide with falling college-enrollment rates, which declined on average 1.6 percent from 2011 to 2021. There are many possible reasons for these poor outcomes, and blame can be placed on a variety of sources, from Covid to the cost of college to its falling perceived value. No matter the cause, however, colleges will need to work to improve their completion rates in order to survive in the long term. This writer’s opinion? Student debt has ballooned to astronomical levels, and many institutions have gone so far to the political left that parents and students alike are reconsidering burying themselves in debt in order to regurgitate political talking points.

Colleges have two choices before them: streamline their services to offer students a competitive and highly educational curriculum that will build their knowledge and help them achieve post-graduation job placements or simply lower enrollment standards so that more students enroll—and therefore pay tuition. While the latter is tempting, the former is clearly the correct choice. Colleges and universities have been allowed to wander from their purpose for too long, due to raging progressives and federal student loans that are too easily granted. The data from NSCRC should lead policymakers to correct course. Time will tell if they heed the warning.

Grace Hall is a communications assistant at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. She works and lives in Georgia.