Most students enrolling in college for the first time imagine that they’ll have a degree in four years. But, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), they shouldn’t.
The average full-time student does not earn enough credits to complete a bachelor’s degree in even five years, said the report, which is based on course credit data from students who started college in 2019-2020. This increases the likelihood that they will join the over 39 million Americans with college credits but no degree. It’s a group that often has school-related debt, but not the credential that would allow them to get a job to pay it.
“College completion is not what we need it to be,” said Dr. Nia Woods Haydel, vice president for alliance engagement and institutional transformation at Complete College America, a non-profit. “I would say that’s a crisis.”
The report found that in their first year of study, just over half of full-time students were on pace to graduate in five years or less, and only 28% were on track to graduate in the traditional four-year timespan. The average full-time student was not even attempting enough credits to finish in four years.
This may be in part because of a misunderstanding, say experts. For the purposes of financial aid, students must be enrolled in 12 credit-hours per semester to be considered a full-time student eligible for the maximum award. But 15 credit-hours are necessary to graduate in four years.
“I don’t think it’s intentional,” said Haydel. “I think it’s a lack of knowledge from students and their families.”
Another factor may be students’ efforts to avoid biting off more than they can chew.
“Sometimes, students think that, if [college] is going to be hard, maybe I should take less and I will do better,” said Haydel.
Counterintuitively, this can lead to worse results.
“Studies have shown that students who actually take 15 [credit-hours] usually perform better because their time is a little more structured,” said Haydel. “It allows them to be a bit more focused.”
The report also found large differences by race and gender. Overall, Black males were found to earn three credits—a full course’s worth—fewer than white males, Asian males, and females in their first year. Among women, the percent of Asian students on track to graduate in four years was twice that of Black students and Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders.
Haydel was not surprised.
“Students of color typically need a different type of support when they reach higher education because higher education really wasn’t created for students of color,” said Haydel. “And we can’t forget the psychosocial things—is there a sense of belonging? Do they have people at the institution who have the same lived experiences as them who can help them navigate?”
Dr. Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, agreed that the problems lie with the systems, not the students. He had a series of prescriptions for colleges to help first-year students.
“Colleges need to dramatically shift their orientation to helping students get momentum,” he said. “They need to ensure that by the end of their first term, the student has a preliminary full program plan. They need to monitor their progress on that plan and enable the student to see the plan in their portal. They need to schedule courses based on students’ plans, not to suit the faculty. And they need to move towards flex/hybrid delivery methods.”
Jenkins also recommended doing away with remedial courses in favor of increased support in key introductory classes.
“Our research shows that prerequisite math and English does not build students’ skills for college. It’s very demotivating for students,” he said. “A better approach is to mainstream students and really double down on the academic support.”
The NSC report relied on student data from the 2019-2020 school year, in which learning was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This may have made the credit statistics lower than they otherwise would have been, but Jenkins believes that they are consistent with what has been happening nationwide.
“This is the general pattern we’ve seen for years looking at transcript-level data,” he said.
Although it has been clear that many American students who attend college haven’t been finishing, the NSC report shows that the problem may often be present from their first year on campus. The path to a college degree is hard, and America has a long way to go.