Education

Credential stacking drove 1.1% increase in undergraduate degrees earned last year

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Dive Brief:

  • The number of undergraduates earning a credential ticked up slightly in 2020-21, increasing after holding flat the year before, according to data released Wednesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
  • Undergraduate credential earners totaled 3.7 million. That’s up 1.1%, or about 39,000 people, from the number reported in each of the last two years.
  • Growth came from students with prior awards who were stacking credentials. About 1 million students graduating in 2020-21 had prior awards, up 3.9% or 37,800 students from 2019-20. First-time graduates, meanwhile, held steady at 2.69 million after dropping from 2.71 million in 2018-19.

Dive Insight:

Undergraduate enrollment — the driver of many colleges’ financial health — has been falling during the pandemic, sparking worries of a shrinking pie across higher ed. Concerns didn’t abate in May when the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released spring 2022 enrollment data, which showed a year-over-year decline of 4.7%, or 662,000 undergraduates.

But topline undergraduate enrollment numbers are only part of the equation for colleges. Retention and graduation metrics can reflect how well they’re serving students once they get in the door.

There are two sides to Wednesday’s data on undergraduates earning credentials, said Mikyung Ryu, director of research publications for the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a statement.

“The overall growth was led by stacked credential earners, but first-time graduates as a whole had no growth,” Ryu said. “This implies a growing dichotomy of the haves and have-nots in postsecondary attainment.”

A large majority of the 3.7 million students earning undergraduate credentials in 2020-21 — 72.8% — were completing college for the first time. That’s a slight drop from 73.6% the previous year and upholds a long-running trend of first-time earners making up smaller shares of all students earning undergraduate credentials. In 2012-13, first-time earners comprised 76.9% of all students earning undergraduate credentials.

First-time graduates earning a bachelor’s degree made up the largest chunk of all credential earners in 2020-21, at 41%. First-time graduates earning an associate degree accounted for another 20%, and first-time graduates earning a certificate were 12%.

Those earning a bachelor’s degree after previously graduating with a credential accounted for 16% of all graduates. Previous credential earners who went on to collect an associate degree equaled 6% of all graduates, and previous credential earners taking home a certificate made up about 6% more.

But the number of students who earned a certificate as their first undergraduate credential slipped 2.6%, or 11,800 people, year over year. Those earning an associate degree as their first credential edged up 0.3%, or 2,500 students, after plunging by 3.7% the previous year. First-time baccalaureate earners rose 0.7%, or by 10,600 graduates.

Among college students of traditional age — under 25 years old — first-time associate and certificate completion fell. The age group added bachelor’s degree earners year over year, but not enough to offset losses elsewhere. Overall first-time graduates under age 25 dipped 0.5%, or by 9,600 people.

That’s notable because the age group represents more than seven in 10 of those earning an undergraduate credential for the first time.

Meanwhile, the number of first-time graduates 25 or older rose 1.4%, or by 10,350 people. The growth was in large part because of graduates in their 30s, who increased by 4.3%, or 10,700 students. However, there are still fewer graduates age 25 and over than before the pandemic.

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