College Completion FAQs

Commonly asked questions about college completion at open- and broad-access institutions

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students across the United States enroll in college with high hopes and aspirations, but many of these students will leave before ever earning a degree. We explore what we know about students who attend college, when and why some students leave, and some promising interventions to improve college completion.

College students and institutions: Who’s attending college and where?

More than 26.5 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities across the United States in the 2016–17 academic year. We break down the types of postsecondary institutions these students attended and the important function that open- and broad-access institutions serve in providing a pathway to career success.

How does student enrollment vary across types of institutions of higher education?

The majority of undergraduate college students in the United States attend public universities, such as 2‑year community colleges and 4‑year state colleges and universities. In 2016, these types of public institutions accounted for more than 65% of undergraduate enrollment.

Enrollment by Institution Type

Data Source: National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Undergraduate 2016

What are open- and broad-access institutions, and who do they serve?

Open- and broad-access institutions include 2-year community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities that accept 75% or more of their applicants. These types of institutions tend to have open or minimally selective admissions policies, and thus provide a pathway to a college degree for a large population of students, including a majority of first-generation college students.

Because open- and broad-access institutions serve such a broad range of students, the research teams in the CCN are all focused on identifying and evaluating promising strategies that these institutions can use to improve college completion rates.

Note: Open- and broad-access institutions include those that grant sub-Baccalaureate degrees and certificates as well as institutions that grant Baccalaureate degrees and have open or minimally selective admission policies according to Barron’s Selectivity Index and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

What are the characteristics of the students who attend open- and broad-access institutions?

The graphs below indicate the race and ethnicity, dependency status, income level, and age of undergraduate students enrolled at open- and broad-access institutions in the United States in 2016. Of undergraduates that year, more than half were students of color. In addition, the majority of undergraduates classified themselves as "independent" on their taxes and had an income of less than $50,000. The high percentage of independent students at open- and broad-access institutions is consistent with the data in the third graph, which shows that over half of undergraduates enrolled in 2016 were more than 24 years of age.

Note: Open- and broad-access institutions include those that grant sub-Baccalaureate degrees and certificates as well as institutions that grant Baccalaureate degrees and have open or minimally selective admission policies according to Barron’s Selectivity Index and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS).

Undergraduate Students Enrolled at
Open- and Broad-Access Institutions in the United States, 2016

Race and Ethnicity of Enrolled Students

Data Source: National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Undergraduate 2016

Financial Dependency Status of Enrolled Students

Data Source: National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Undergraduate 2016

Age of Enrolled Students

Data Source: National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey, Undergraduate 2016

College graduates and dropouts: Which students go on to earn a degree, and which don’t?

In the 2017–18 academic year, 1.7 million degrees were awarded at open- and broad-access institutions of higher education in the United States. To gain insight into the institutional and student characteristics related to college persistence and degree completion, we examine the number of associate and bachelor’s degrees awarded by institution type, graduation rates by students’ race/ethnicity and gender, and the percentage of students enrolled full time at a 2-year or 4-year institution who drop out in their first year.

How does the number of degrees awarded vary by institution type?

The following graphs depict the total number of associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2018 for all postsecondary institutions and for open- and broad-access institutions. Open- and broad-access institutions comprise 2-year colleges as well as 4-year colleges and universities that accept 75% or more of their applicants. Our network research projects focus primarily on identifying and evaluating promising strategies for improving college completion rates at open- and broad-access institutions.

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Note: Open- and broad-access institutions include those that grant sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates as well as institutions that grant baccalaureate degrees and have open or minimally selective admission requirements according to Barron’s Selectivity Index and IPEDS.

Graphic

Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)

Note: Open- and broad-access institutions include those that grant sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates as well as institutions that grant baccalaureate degrees and have open or minimally selective admission policies according to Barron’s Selectivity Index and IPEDS.

How does college completion vary by student characteristics and type of degree program?

The graphs below show postsecondary graduation rates in 2018 overall as well as broken down by race/ethnicity and gender. The data in the graphs represent students enrolled full time at a 2-year institution who earned a degree within 3 years of enrollment and students enrolled full time at a 4-year institution who earned a degree within 6 years of enrollment.

When looking at overall graduation rates, nearly 60% of full-time students who enrolled in a 4-year college or university in 2012 graduated by 2018. However, only 35% of full-time students who enrolled in a 2-year college in 2015 graduated by 2018.

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

When looking at graduation rates by race/ethnicity, Asian students and White students had higher graduation rates at both 2-year and 4-year institutions in 2018 than American Indian or Alaska Native students, Black or African American students, Hispanic or Latino students, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students. When looking at graduation rates by gender, female students had higher graduation rates at both 2-year and 4‑year institutions in 2018 than male students. A limitation of the data is that students who transferred to a 4-year institution from a 2-year institution without earning a degree are not included.

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

What percentage of students drop out after their first year of college?

The path to earning a postsecondary credential can be long and complex. At any point in the journey, students may choose to drop out, when they abandon the pursuit of a degree, or stop out, when they temporarily withdraw from an institution.

The following charts use data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) to track the college journey of a nationally representative group of students. For students enrolled full time at a 2-year college in 2015, 37% stopped out or dropped out in their first year of college. For students enrolled full time at a 4‑year college or university in 2012, 20% dropped out in their first year of college.

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Data Source: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System

Note: A student has stopped out when they interrupt their enrollment with a break of more than 4 consecutive months before reenrolling. A student has dropped out when they leave their institution and do not return within 5 years.