US college graduation rate drops 2 percent, WV rate also on decline

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US college graduation rate drops 2 percent, WV rate also on decline
By Samuel Speciale, Education Reporter, WV Gazette-Mail

The number of students earning a degree in America is declining at both public and private colleges, says a national report released Tuesday.

In a study of the 2.9 million students who started college in 2009, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center discovered only 52.9 percent graduated within six years, a 2.1 percent decline compared to the previous class.

In its study, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, an independent organization that tracks enrollment and graduation data, looked at students who started college immediately after high school, those who delayed entering college until their 20s and adult learners over 24.

The graduation rate of older students who started school in 2009 declined the most. Only 33.6 percent of students who delayed entering college until their 20s completed their degree within six years, a 4.7 decline compared to those who started in 2008 and finished in 2014. Adult learners, at 39.2 percent, saw a smaller decline of 2.9 percent.

Students who entered college immediately after high school are more likely to graduate within six years, the report found. Nearly 60 percent of students who started in 2009 graduated in 2015, a less than 1 percent decline compared to the previous class.

The decline comes despite state and federal efforts to improve the country’s college completion rate, which lags behind other countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development last year ranked the United States 19th out of 28 countries in a study on college completion rates around the world.

Four-year private colleges had the highest graduation rates, at 71 percent. For-profit colleges graduated the fewest students, at less than a third. Four-year public colleges graduated 63 percent of their students.

Graduation rates in West Virginia have declined at about the same rate, but are considerably lower. The state has the eighth worst overall college completion rate in the country, ahead of only Idaho, Hawaii, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada and Alaska.

According to West Virginia higher education data for the 2008 class, only 44 percent of students earned a degree within six years of enrolling at a two- or four-year school, whether it was public or private. The national overall graduation rate is about 56 percent.

Neal Holly, vice chancellor for policy and planning for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said data for the 2009 class should be available in January when the state’s higher education report card is published. When asked if the graduation rate changed, he said he doesn’t expect there to be a dramatic decline or increase.

“When you look at the spreads, changes are only ever 1 or 2 percent,” he said.

West Virginia’s four-year graduation rate is even lower, at 24 percent, but the state looks at six-year cohorts because some students take longer to finish a degree.

Holly also said one must consider the policies and recruitment efforts of the time when looking at graduation cohorts. He said those measures affect students now and that strategies are constantly changing.

Despite there being a national decline, the report’s authors say their findings do not mean efforts to encourage graduation at institutional, state and federal levels have been ineffective. In fact, they say those efforts may have prevented the graduation rate from declining further.

In the report, they call for additional measures that take into account the complexity of changing postsecondary pathways.

“Developing new measures of student success outcomes is essential if we are to inform and improve public and institutional policies in ways that acknowledge and respond to today’s student pathways,” the report’s authors say.

Despite declines in the graduation rate, the report also found the total number of students earning a degree increased by about 71,000 in 2015.