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By Kaitlin Mulhere
November 17, 2015

The percentage of college students who earn their degree within six years has fallen again this year, according to a report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The national six-year completion rate for students who enrolled in the fall of 2009 was 52.9%. That’s down 2.1 percentage points from last year’s results, which looked at students who enrolled in 2008, and double the size of last year’s decline. Unlike last year, though, completion rates this year fell at every type of college and across all student subgroups.

Of course, graduation rates vary dramatically depending on the type of student and school. Unsurprisingly, graduation rates were highest and down only slightly among traditional-age college students, who had a 58.6% overall six-year completion rate. Students who enrolled in college between the ages of 20 and 24 had a completion rate of 33.6 (a drop of 4.7 percentage points). Students who enrolled after age 24 had a completion rate of 39.2% (down 2.9 percentage points).

Graduation rates declined 1.7 percentage points for students who enrolled at four-year public colleges (to 61.2%), and 2.1 percentage points for students at four-year private colleges (to 71.5%). At two-year colleges, the completion rate fell just slightly, from 39.1% to 38.1%, (15.1% of students had transferred and finished a degree program at a four-year college). But the largest drop was at four-year for-profit colleges, where completion rates fell from 38.4% to 32.8%.

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Even though completion rates dropped, the total number of students who graduated within six years of enrolling in 2009 was about 71,000 higher than the class that started in 2008, thanks in part to enrollment growth among older students, largely driven by the weak economy.

Completion rates have become a focal point for policymakers for several important reasons. For one, lawmakers at the state and national level are debating how to make college more affordable and ensure that taxpayers get a good return on investment for the public money given to colleges and universities as financial aid. For another, statistics show that students who don’t complete their degrees are more likely to struggle to pay back their student loans, and eventually, to default. Student debtors without a degree have a delinquency rate of 43.5%, more than double that of debtors with an associates degree and four times as high as bachelor’s degree holders, according to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

There’s currently a national push, led by the Lumina Foundation, to increase the number of Americans with higher education credentials. But to do that, completion rates will almost certainly have to improve, as will outreach to adults who have earned some college credits but dropped out before earning a degree.

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