A few weeks ago I wrote about three good news stories about the state of higher education. I had hoped to lift my spirits a bit and shed some light on the otherwise bleak, perhaps even fatalistic visions of academia and education that dominate and clutter our current discourse.
In that article, I had noted that college applications were on the rise — at least those tracked by Common App, the one-stop shop for applying to colleges. With this news, I pointed out that ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has raised its outlook for US colleges and universities from negative to stable. Yes stable. And the third piece of good news is that college endowments absolutely shattered revenue and growth records last year — boosting and stabilizing many schools, giving them extra ballast to weather the stormy seas ahead.
If you want colleges to succeed and prosper, as I mentioned then, these treats have to slightly up the corners of your mouth. And if they do, maybe those other two elements will induce the first hint of a real smile.
Both items come from the National Student Clearinghouse, one of the main sources of data we get on the state of higher education.
The first piece of good news is that, according to the Clearinghouse, the national completion percentage — the share of college enrollees who earn a 4-year degree in six years — improved last year. It is now at a decade high of 62.2%. Ten years ago, the 6-year completion percentage was only 54.1%.
This is a dramatic and steady increase with profound impacts not only on the university’s economy and value proposition, but also on the schools’ financial stability – more students staying in school longer long time increase income.
Even better, the increase in completion rates this year was greatest among students enrolled in 2-year colleges. Those entering college from 2-year schools saw their 6-year pass rates rise from 40.7% to 42.2%. It is enormous.
It is also significant that completion gains were seen in all areas, across all institution types, with private four-year colleges still leading the pack. The Clearinghouse reports that 78.3% of students who enroll in these schools graduate within six years.
For-profit 4-year schools have also increased their pass rates, although they continue to lag significantly behind their peers. Less than half – just 46.6% of students who enter for-profit colleges – graduate in six years or less.
Yet the trend is positive and significant. The Clearinghouse says success rates “increased in 32 of 46 states” for which they had good data.
The other nugget of news from The Clearinghouse is that transfer sign-ups have stabilized this year.
There is still this word – stabilized. And again – it’s good.
Transfers were down 1% last year, which is good. But that’s light years better than in 2020, when transfers were down more than 9%, largely due to pandemic chaos and uncertainty.
Secondary news on the stabilization of transfers is mixed. Transfers among continuous learners notably increased by 2.3% compared to the previous year. Younger transfer students – those 18-20 – have also increased and fully recovered from the 2020 declines. Good product.
What’s not so good is that The Clearinghouse says transfer enrollment is still down and continues to drop among students who took a break between transfers. This rate is down 5.8% year-on-year. And upward transfers – from 2-year-old schools to 4-year-olds – continue to sag, albeit less than they did in 2020.
Again, we see four-year private colleges gaining, claiming the biggest increase among transfer enrollments – up 7.7%. Public 4-year schools were also positive on transfers, up 1.5%.
In a sea of pressure, any stability news is welcome. And if you count, noting the markers, that’s five good news for higher education in almost as many weeks. This should be a big deal and a clue that the relentless negative coverage of our educational institutions is neither all-encompassing nor fatal.
American colleges and universities are an outsized engine of economic vitality and personal growth. Their health and vitality are of indescribable importance. Beset as they are by political and financial threats, our colleges are moving forward – returning outsized rewards year after year after year. They could use – and deeply deserve – good news and even more stability.