The number of undergraduates who earned credentials stagnated last academic year for the first time in at least eight years, according to new National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.
There were 3.7 million new graduates in the 2019-20 school year, the same as in the prior year. A slight decrease in first-time graduates offset an increase in completions by people who already had a credential.
A downturn in associate degree and certificate recipients in late spring 2020 accounts for the decrease in first-time graduates, which the center said is related to the pandemic's disproportionate impact on community college students.
Despite predictions that community college enrollment would jump in a period of economic turmoil, as it did in the last recession, it tumbled this fall by about 10% from the previous year, according to earlier Clearinghouse research.
This trend is reflected in its new data as well. The number of first-time associate degree and certificate earners fell by almost 4% and 5%, respectively, the center reported.
The number of first-time associate degree earners is now at the lowest level since the 2012-13 academic year, when the center started tracking the data. The pandemic accelerated ongoing declines for this group, with more than 90% of the decrease occurring between April and June, the researchers explained.
However, this decline was somewhat offset by continued growth in the number of non-first-time graduates, or those earning stacked credentials (a 2.7% increase from the year before).
The number of first-time bachelor's degree earners also grew by about 2% during the 2019-20 academic year, accounting for some 28,000 graduates. This increase was only among traditional-age students, however, the center notes.
Fewer students earning credentials amid the pandemic could have long-term repercussions for higher education. The national six-year completion rate for undergraduates continues to slow, the Clearinghouse reported last month, though it noted that older students tend to be faring better than their traditional-age peers.