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Colleges Producing More Graduates with Prior Degrees and Fewer First-Time Grads

Mar 10, 2016 | Media Center, Press Releases, Research News

Drop in First-Time Graduates Driven by Older Students

Herndon, VA, March 10, 2016 — According to the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center’s™ annual Undergraduate Degree Earner’s Report, the number of graduates with prior awards grew by 12.4 percent from the 2011-12 to 2014-15 academic year, while the number of first-time graduates – students earning their first undergraduate degree – fell 2.6 percent. Over the four years covered in the report, U.S. institutions added nearly 8.9 million first-time undergraduate degree earners with an associate or bachelor’s degree.

The decline in first-time graduates was driven entirely by students in the 25 and over age group, whose numbers dropped 15.4 percent since 2011-12. In contrast, first-time graduates under the age of 25 increased 4.3 percent.

“In today’s world, students are pursuing college in smaller chunks, moving from a certificate to an associates’ and from there to a bachelor’s degree, often punctuated by spells in the workforce,” stated Doug Shapiro, Executive Research Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “This means that even though colleges and universities are issuing about the same number of degrees, when you break it all down we are actually producing more students with multiple degrees and fewer new college graduates. The declines in first-time degree earners have important implications for national efforts to increase the number of adults with a postsecondary credential.”

“These data highlight the diverse missions’ community colleges serve such as providing new skills to enter the workforce, preparing students for transfer to a bachelor’s degree program, or providing skill upgrades to incumbent or under skilled workers,” said Kent A. Phillippe, Associate VP, Research & Student Success, American Association of Community Colleges. “These data provide new insights into the importance of measuring student outcomes against the backdrop of how higher education is being used by the students of today.”

Other findings include:

  • First-time graduates fell from 80.5 percent of undergraduate degree earners in 2011-12 to 78.2 percent in 2014-15. The remaining share, the graduates who were earning additional degrees on top of prior degrees or certificates, grew from 19.5 percent to 21.8 percent over this period.
  • Of students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2014-15, 76.5 percent were first-time graduates, down from 78.2% in 2011-12. Among their prior awards: 18.9 percent of the bachelor recipients had previously earned an associate degree, 1.4 percent had previously earned a certificate, and 3.2 percent had previously earned another bachelor’s or higher degree.
  • Of students who earned an associate degree in 2014-15, 81.4 percent were first-time graduates, down from 84.6% in 2011-12. Among their prior awards: 8.1 percent of the associate recipients had previously earned a certificate, 7.0 percent had previously earned another associate degree, and 3.5 percent had previously earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • The number of bachelor’s degree recipients who had a prior associate’s degree increased steadily, from 318,000 in 2011-12 to 349,211 in 2014-15. This represents 1.1 percentage point increase in the share of bachelor’s degree recipients.

To review all yearly graduation data from 2011-12 to 2014-15, read the Undergraduate Degree Earner’s Report.

Published annually, the Undergraduate Degree Earner’s Report is based on certificate and degree data from postsecondary institutions participating in the National Student Clearinghouse DegreeVerify℠ service. These institutions account for more than 91 percent of postsecondary credentials granted by U.S. Title IV eligible degree-granting institutions.

About the National Student Clearinghouse® Research Center The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center is the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse. The Research Center collaborates with higher education institutions, states, school districts, high schools, and educational organizations as part of a national effort to better inform education leaders and policymakers. Through accurate longitudinal data outcomes reporting, the Research Center enables better educational policy decisions leading to improved student outcomes. To learn more, visit