Report: Most students start too slowly to complete a college degree in five years


Why do so few students complete their bachelor’s degree in four years? The short answer is that the majority of them are slow to start. Based on their freshman year in college, the average full-time student doesn’t try or earn enough credits to earn a bachelor’s degree, even within five years. That’s one of the key conclusions of a new study — the Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP) Insights Report — from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC).


NSC researchers analyzed two measurements for 905,689 degree-seeking students (including college freshmen and first-time graduates) at 342 colleges and universities. They were both full-time and part-time students.

The students had started college in Fall 2019, Winter 2019, Spring 2020, or Summer 2020 and were seeking an undergraduate certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree. They were followed for a whole year from their initial period. For example, students who started in the fall of 2019 were followed until the summer of 2020, and the students who started in the spring of 2020 were followed until the winter of 2020, etc.

The two measures were freshmen credit completion rate (CCNR) and credit accumulation rate (CAR).

  • The CCNR is the ratio of credits earned to credits attempted. It is a measure of student success or credit achievement that quantifies students’ freshman movement through coursework.
  • The CAR measures credit accumulation by determining how many students have exceeded specific credits within a given time period. For example, what percentage of the students obtained 24 or more credits in the first year? It can serve as an early indicator of momentum toward graduating and reveal when and where gaps in ultimate graduating between groups may begin.


The average full-time student doesn’t even try — let alone get — enough credits to earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, which in most cases requires 120 credits.

  • The average full-time student took less than 27 credits in the first year of study and obtained fewer than 22 credits.
  • Only 51% of full-time students earned 24 or more credit hours in their freshman year.
  • Less than a third (28%) earned 30 or more hours of credit, which would be the rate it would take to complete a BA in four years.

On average, students earn about 75% of the credits they attempt. In other words, students earn nine credit hours for every 12 credits they attempt. But the credit completion rate varies due to several factors, including student characteristics, academic readiness, and institutional differences.

  • Looking first at racial/ethnic groups, the overall CCR ranged from 66.8% to 84.1%. The highest CCRs were achieved by non-resident aliens (84.1%), followed by Asian (83.5%) and white (79.8%) students. Black/African American (66.8%), American Indian/Alaska Native (67.8%) and Hispanic (73.6%) students had lower CCRs.
  • Women (78%) had a slightly higher CCR than men (74.4%).
  • Among freshmen seeking a degree, those enrolled in undergraduate degrees achieved higher average CCRs (84.0%) than students enrolled in undergraduate certificate programs (74.6%) or associate degree programs (70.0%).
  • Freshmen seeking a degree who were identified by their institution as “college ready” in both Mathematics and English achieved a higher CCR (81.1%) compared to students who were “not ready for college” in both (62.5%). Students identified as “not ready for college” for math or English also achieved lower than average CCR in their first year (70.5% for “not ready for college” for math only; 71.4% for English).
  • The average first-year CCR was 85.9% for students at private four-year institutions and 80.6% for students at public four-year institutions. The overall CCR for students at public, two-year institutions was 70.3%.

Student and institutional differences were also found for first-year credits – the CAR standard.

  • If you only consider the students who were enrolled full-time, 64.6% of full-time non-residents, 60.6% of Asian, 55.3% of White and 49.4% of Hispanic students earned at least 24 or more credit hours during their first year of study. Those percentages were compared to 40.2% for Black/African American students, 38.5% for American Indian/Alaska Native students, and 36.8% for Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students.
  • A similar pattern was found for the percentages of full-time students completing 30 credits in their first year: 40.2% for non-residents, 35.9% for Asians, 29.9% for whites, 25.7% for Hispanics, 19, 8% for Blacks, 19.6% for Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders, and 19% for American Indian/Alaska Natives.
  • Overall, 41.7% of students aged 20 and under achieved 24 or more credit hours in their first year, compared with 28.9% of students aged 21-24 and 19.5% of students older than 24 years.
  • Of all undergraduate students seeking a degree, 55.1% of students at private, four-year institutions earned 24 or more credits during their first year of college, compared with 43.8% of students at public, four-year institutions and 21.6% of college students. the students at public, two-year institutions.

This is the first time the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is using current credit information to measure various forms of academic progress, such as percentage of credits in the first year and percentage of credits completed.

It’s important to remember that the data comes from a voluntary sample of institutions that may not be representative of colleges or students nationwide. Nevertheless, the implications of the findings are significant, highlighting several issues related to institutional practices, college costs, and student success.

Firstly, the results point to the importance of early, intensive supervision of students. According to Dr. Afet Dundar, director of Equity in Research and Analytics at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and one of the authors of the report, “college and university administrators and practitioners can use these metrics to design effective and timely support for those students who need it most.” need them most while the students are still enrolled, otherwise students will lag behind academically and financially by not completing their studies as soon as possible.”

Second, policies like striped tuition – where students pay the same tuition even if they take more credits within a certain range; eg between 12 and 18 credits – provide a double incentive for students to take more courses in a semester. By making the most of bundled tuition, students can save on tuition fees and shorten their study time.

Third, policies such as Complete College America’s “15 to Finish” campaign, where colleges encourage and support students to take at least 15 credits per semester to stay on track for timely graduation, represent an intervention that can simultaneously target are on a better completion of the diploma, lower study costs and less student debt.

About the National Student Clearinghouse

The National Student Clearinghouse is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 to provide the higher education community with accurate educational reporting, data sharing, verification, and research services. It provides comprehensive registration, degree, and certificate records for more than 3,600 participating institutions, representing 98% of all higher education students in public and private U.S. institutions.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the NRC and regularly reports national data on postsecondary enrollment, mobility and student outcomes.


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