PEDAR: Executive Summary  College Persistence on the Rise? Changes in 5-Year Degree Completion and Postsecondary Persistence Rates Between 1994 and 2000
Changes in Student Population
Changes in Student Borrowing
Changes in Degree Completion and 5-Year Persistence
Changes by Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Income
Research Methodology
Full Report (PDF)
Executive Summary (PDF)

Using two longitudinal surveys of beginning postsecondary students (i.e., first-time freshmen),1 this study examines whether students who enrolled in the beginning of the 1990s were more or less likely than those who enrolled in the mid-1990s to complete postsecondary education. Specifically, the analysis compares the degree completion and persistence rates among two cohorts—students who first enrolled in postsecondary education in academic year 1989–90 and their counterparts who first enrolled in 1995–96. The study focuses on the rates at which students in each cohort completed a degree within 5 years or were still enrolled at the end of 5 years; it also examines changes in the students’ demographic profile and other population characteristics. The findings are based on data from the 1990/94 and 1996/01 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Studies (BPS:90/94 and BPS:96/01). Each of these studies surveys a sample of students who enrolled in postsecondary education for the first time in a specific academic year. The earlier cohort of beginning postsecondary students consisted of students who first began their postsecondary education in 1989–90 (BPS:90/94) and were interviewed again in 1992 and 1994. The more recent cohort followed students who began in 1995–96 (BPS:96/01) and were interviewed subsequently in 1998 and 2001.2 The later survey actually covers a 6-year period, but in order to make comparisons with BPS:90/94, which ended after 5 years, measures of 5-year degree completion and persistence are analyzed. It is important to note that the findings from this analysis are entirely descriptive in nature and, while associations are noted, they should not be interpreted as causal inferences.3

Historical research based on data collected by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Census Bureau has shown that college completion rates have changed little since the early 1970s (Barton 2002; Adelman 2004), with completion rates of 66–67 percent for 1972, 1982, and 1992 high school graduates who ever enrolled at a 4-year college (figure 1). In the current study, no overall change in the 5-year bachelor’s degree completion rate was detected. However, despite the relatively short period of 6 years between the two surveys, measurable changes in 5-year persistence rates were evident. Students in the more recent (1995–96) cohort were more likely to be enrolled 5 years after they began their postsecondary studies. As a result, the combined rate of degree completion and 5-year persistence for students who began their undergraduate education in a 4-year institution rose from 76 to 80 percent.

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