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.

Graphic

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.

Graphic

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.

Barriers to College Completion: What Are Some Reasons Students Fail to Earn a Degree?

Only 35% of full-time students who enrolled in a 2-year college in 2015 had graduated by 2018. When students enroll in college, they face numerous challenges in their path to graduation. Using research from the College Completion Network (CCN) research teams, we examine some of the barriers to college completion. Many of the identified barriers are not exclusive to one another and, in multiple instances, have commonality in their definitions. As such, we have identified four broad categories of barriers:

  • Lack of affordability
  • Social and psychological factors
  • Inadequate college systems and supports
  • Ineffective approaches to developmental education

Note that the following information is not meant to provide a comprehensive list of all the barriers students might face while enrolling in and attending college. Rather, this list is meant to highlight the barriers that the CCN research teams are investigating and working to address.

What are some of the most common barriers to college completion related to a lack of affordability?

The financial cost of attending college can be prohibitive for students, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and students with low levels of family support. The full cost of a postsecondary education includes tuition and fees as well as basic needs such as housing and food. Students who lack adequate financial resources to cover the full cost of college are less likely to persist (Anderson & Steele, 2016). In this section, we describe some of the main financial barriers to college completion. These barriers were identified in part through research being conducted by the network team at the Hope Center/Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU).

Cost of Enrollment

The cost of college tuition and fees can be too high for some students to continue their postsecondary education. Although Pell Grants (and other forms of financial aid) are available to help students cover the cost of tuition and fees, new limits on Pell Grants may result in some students from low-income backgrounds dropping out (Anderson & Steele, 2016).

Financial Emergencies

A financial emergency is a student’s need to pay for specific types of one-time emergency expenses related to medical care, childcare, transportation, or living expenses. Such emergency expenses can negatively impact a student’s ability to stay in college (Dachelet & Goldrick-Rab, 2015).

Food Insecurity

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain access to nutritious foods (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). A lack of sufficient food has been linked to poor academic performance and is prominent among the undergraduate population, with 39% of community college students reporting food insecurity. This number mirrors surveys conducted by the University of California and the City University of New York system (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). Further, it is estimated that only 20% of students who are food insecure receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018).

Housing Insecurity

Housing insecurity is the inability to pay rent or utilities or find consistent housing, which may result in homelessness. In a 2018 survey conducted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, almost half (46%) of community college students experienced housing insecurity, and only 8% of students who are housing insecure received housing assistance (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018). Housing insecurity is associated with lower rates of college persistence, credit attainment, and degree completion (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018).

References

Anderson, C. B., & Steele, P. E. (2016). Foiling the drop-out trap: Completion grant practices for retaining and graduating students. Coalition of Urban Serving Universities & Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities. https://www.aplu.org/library/foiling-the-drop-out-trap-completion-grant-practices-for-retaining-and-graduating-students/File

Dachelet, K., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2015). Investing in student completion: Overcoming financial barriers to retention through small-dollar grants and emergency aid programs. Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Scholarship America. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Investing-in-Student-Completion-WI-Hope_Lab.pdf

Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. University of Wisconsin–Madison. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf

What are some of the most common barriers to college completion related to social and psychological factors?

Social and psychological factors play an important role in students’ academic achievement and whether they persist in and complete college (PERTS Lab, n.d.a). In this section, we describe some of the main social and psychological barriers to college completion. These barriers were identified in part through research being conducted by the network teams at RAND/AIR, the PERTS Lab, and the University of Virginia.

Fixed Mindset

A fixed mindset is the idea that “people are born with a certain amount of intelligence, and they can’t do much to change that” (PERTS Lab, n.d.b). Students with a fixed mindset may encounter challenges and simply give up, assuming they are not smart enough. This negative interpretation of one’s abilities may dissuade students from asking for help or trying new strategies. Instead, these students often disengage from coursework and tend to underperform compared with their peers who view their intellectual abilities as malleable (PERTS, n.d.a).

Lack of Sense of Belonging

When students struggle to feel a sense of belonging on their college campus, they tend to disengage and are less likely to persist (Murphy et al., 2020). This is especially evident among underrepresented and first-generation college students at broad-access institutions. Given the historical exclusion and stereotypes surrounding these

groups, students may experience common academic and social challenges, such as receiving a bad grade or struggling to make friends, and question whether they belong at that school (Murphy et al., 2020). As a result, they are less likely to persist into their second year (Murphy et al., 2020).

Negative Classroom Environments Inhibiting Social-Behavioral Competencies

Research has shown that social-behavioral competencies are associated with academic success (Farrington et al., 2012). Social-behavioral competencies are malleable and include academic behaviors, perseverance, learning strategies, and social skills. Negative classroom environments, such as discrimination, microaggression, and an overall “chilly” climate, contribute to poor social-behavioral competencies (Herman & Hilton, 2017).

Psychosocial Barriers

Psychosocial barriers, such as cognitive overload and impatience, present obstacles to college completion (Bettinger et al., 2019). As students progress in their postsecondary education, the path to completion is more self-guided with limited academic supports. In addition, students may start to take on more responsibilities outside their coursework. For students who are working and going to school at the same time, competing priorities may result in increased stress and less ability to focus on their coursework. When faced with increased stress and anxiety, students may believe the immediate costs of a college degree outweigh the future benefits of obtaining a college degree and are more likely to drop out (Bettinger et al., 2019; Mabel & Britton, 2018).

References

Bettinger, E. P., Castleman, B. L., & Mabel, Z. (2019). Finishing the last lap: Experimental evidence on strategies to increase college completion for students at risk of late departure. Harvard University. https://scholar.harvard.edu/zmabel/publications/finishing-last-lap-experimental-evidence-strategies-increase-college-completion

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners. The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED542543

Herman, J., & Hilton, M. (Eds.). (2017). Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. National Academies Press. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED581580

Mabel, Z., & Britton, T. A. (2018). Leaving late: Understanding the extent and predictors of college late departure. Social Science Research, 69, 34–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2017.10.001

Murphy, M. C., Gopalan, M., Carter, E. R., Emerson, K. T., Bottoms, B. L., & Walton, G. M. (2020). A customized belonging intervention improves retention of socially disadvantaged students at a broad-access university. Science Advances, 6(29), Article eaba4677. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba4677

PERTS Lab. (n.d.a). Growth mindset for college students: An evidence-based program to improve retention and equity. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1j2RhUOGQiLcrFaF5Yqd_FJwSBvIUsPV2X67cVS0G1UI/edit?usp=sharing PERTS Lab. (n.d.b). What is a growth mindset? https://www.mindsetkit.org/topics/about-growth-mindset/what-is-growth-mindset

What are some of the most common barriers to college completion related to inadequate college systems and supports?

College is a difficult environment to navigate, which is why the supports that postsecondary institutions provide can be so pivotal as to whether students complete their degree programs. In this section, we describe some of the main college completion barriers related to inadequate college systems and supports. These barriers were identified in part through research being conducted by the network teams at MDRC and the University of Virginia.

Inadequate Support Services

Although most colleges recognize the need for and offer an array of student support services, the availability and robustness of such services can still be inadequate, which can lead to negative outcomes for students. For example, although nearly all community colleges offer support programs for incoming students, only 55% provide first-year advising, 33% offer learning communities, and 22% offer a first-year mentor program (Alamuddin & Bender, 2018). Also, even when colleges offer student support services, the services may be uncoordinated, not well publicized, and difficult to navigate (Karp et al., 2008). The lack of support services is particularly challenging for first-generation college students, who may experience social isolation within the campus community or find their immediate families indifferent to or unsupportive of their college endeavors (Quinn et al., 2019).

Insufficient Advising Systems

Students rely on advising systems to help them navigate the complex decision-making environment at college. For example, students may need to take a specific course that is offered only during certain semesters or figure out how to complete verification requirements to receive financial aid (Bettinger et al., 2019). The often self-directed nature of advising systems is complicated by the fact that there tends to be low visibility and limited information about campus resources. Insufficient advising systems can lead students to accumulate credits that have no utility toward degree completion (Mabel & Britton, 2018).

References

Alamuddin, R., & Bender, M. (2018). First-year student support: Supporting high-achieving first-year students at public two-year institutions. Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED593990

Bettinger, E. P., Castleman, B. L., & Mabel, Z. (2019). Finishing the last lap: Experimental evidence on strategies to increase college completion for students at risk of late departure. Harvard University. https://scholar.harvard.edu/zmabel/publications/finishing-last-lap-experimental-evidence-strategies-increase-college-completion

Karp, M. M., O’Gara, L., & Hughes, K. L. (2008). Do support services at community colleges encourage success or reproduce disadvantage? An exploratory study of students in two community colleges (CCRC Working Paper No. 10). Teachers College, Columbia University, Community College Research Center. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED499920

Mabel, Z., & Britton, T. A. (2018). Leaving late: Understanding the extent and predictors of college late departure. Social Science Research, 69, 34–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2017.10.001

Quinn, D. E., Cornelius-White, J., & Uribe-Zarain, X. (2019). The success of first-generation college students in a TRIO student support services program: Application of the theory of margin. Critical Questions in Education, 10(1), 44–64. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1203418

What are some of the most common barriers to college completion related to ineffective approaches to developmental education?

Students who enroll in postsecondary institutions may be unprepared for some college-level coursework. Although nearly all colleges offer programs and supports to help these students develop the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in college-level coursework, there is considerable variance in approaches, many of which have been shown to do more harm than good (Bailey et al., 2008). For example, students are often required to take one or more developmental education courses, which are unnecessary and overly burdensome (Bailey et al., 2010). In this section, we describe some of the main barriers related to ineffective approaches to developmental education. These barriers were identified in part through research being conducted by the network team at RAND/AIR.

Insufficient Alignment of Academic Standards

A misalignment of academic standards between high schools and institutions of higher education may act as an institutional barrier to college enrollment and completion, particularly for disadvantaged student populations (The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education et al., 2014). Standardized math and English placement tests route a significant proportion of students who have the skills and determination to succeed in credit-bearing, transfer-level courses into developmental education (Scott-Clayton et al., 2014). Furthermore, many subbaccalaureate credentials offered at community colleges do not require the academic skills emphasized in developmental education courses, yet students have been placed in these courses nonetheless (Rosenbaum et al., 2015).

Lengthy Developmental Sequences

Research shows that college students may struggle to complete developmental education courses and move into credit-bearing coursework (Jaggars et al., 2014). Some students never enroll in a developmental education course. Others enroll but later withdraw from or fail the course, and still others successfully complete a developmental education course or sequence but fail to enroll in the next sequence of developmental education courses (Bailey et al., 2010). When students withdraw from or fail these courses, the probability of degree completion decreases (Bailey et al., 2008). Withdrawing or failing from a developmental education course also has financial implications for students because they spend time, money, and financial aid eligibility on these non-credit-bearing courses (Bailey et al., 2008).

References

Bailey, T. (2008). Challenge and opportunity: Rethinking the role and function of developmental education in community college (CCRC Working Paper No. 14). Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED504242

Bailey, T., Wook Jeong, D., & Sung-Woo, C. (2010). Student progression through developmental sequences in community colleges (CCRC Brief No. 45). http://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED512395

The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, Minority Male Community College Collaborative, Morehouse Research Institute, Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color, Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male, Black Male Institute, & Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory. (2014). Advancing the success of boys and men of color in education: Recommendations for policymakers. https://diversity.utexas.edu/projectmales/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/POLICY-REPORT-8-29-141-copy.pdf

Jaggars, S. S., Edgecombe, N., & Stacey, G. W. (2014). What we know about accelerated developmental education. Teachers College, Columbia University, Community College Research Center. https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/media/k2/attachments/accelerated-developmental-education.pdf

Rosenbaum, J., Rosenbaum, J., Ahearn, C., & Becker, K. (2015). The new forgotten half and research directions to support them. William T. Grant Foundation. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=ED565750

Scott-Clayton, J., Crosta, P. M., & Belfield, C. R. (2014). Improving the targeting of treatment: Evidence from college remediation. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36(3), 371–393. https://eric.ed.gov/?ID=EJ1042032