- Barely over half of a group of first-time, full-time students — 51% — earned 24 or more credits in their first year of college, meaning most aren't on track to graduate in four or even five years, according to research released Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse.
- The average full-time student took classes worth under 27 credit hours and earned fewer than 22. Just 28% of students earned 30 hours of credit or more in their first year, which is the annual pace typically required to graduate on time from four-year bachelor's programs.
- Students earned nine of every 12 credits they took, on average. But rates varied widely based on factors like institution type, degree sought, college readiness, enrollment intensity, and race and ethnicity.
Concern that many full-time college students aren't completing enough credits to graduate within four years isn't new — it underpins efforts like the national "15 to Finish" campaign that encourages students to take 15 credits per semester to receive their degrees on time. It's also one reason data sources often report six-year or even eight-year graduation rates rather than the four-year rate long considered a benchmark for a bachelor's degree.
But the National Student Clearinghouse says its data offers new insight into how students are taking and earning credits — and which ones are more successful at doing so. That could suggest ways for college leaders to jump in and support students who need assistance early, before they risk stopping out of classes, taking on extra debt or running out of financial aid.
"Otherwise, students will continue to fall behind academically and financially by not completing college as soon as possible," said Afet Dundar, director of equity in research and analytics at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a statement. Dundar is also co-author of a report on the data.
The new data released Tuesday comes from the Postsecondary Data Partnership, which the National Student Clearinghouse set up in 2017 to give colleges richer information, such as details on student demographics, their performance in high school, financial aid and course records. Colleges choose to take part in the Postsecondary Data Partnership, so the new data shouldn't be taken as nationally representative.
This particular dataset covers more than 905,000 unique students at 342 different postsecondary institutions. They were first-time students who started college from fall 2019 to summer 2020 and sought undergraduate certificates, associate degrees or bachelor's degrees.
The report on the data outlines one metric, the credit completion ratio. It shows the percentage of credits students earn out of those they attempt. It averaged 76% for the cohort studied.
First-time transfer students posted a higher average, 79.3%, than did all first-time college students, 74.2%.
Among first-time, first-year students, the rate was highest for students who are not U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals, at 84.1%, followed by Asian students at 83.5% and White students at 79.8%. Hispanic students posted a rate of 73.6%, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students were at 72.8%, American Indian and Alaska Native students came in at 67.8%, and Black and African American students were at 66.8%.
Women completed more of the credits they attempted than men, 78% versus 73.4%.