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)

On the whole, when comparing students who began their postsecondary education in 1989–90 with those who began 6 years later, no change was detected in the rate at which students earned a bachelor’s degree within 5 years. However, for those who had not completed a degree, a higher percentage of students in the later cohort were still enrolled after 5 years. These findings indicate that students in the later cohort who had not earned a degree were more persistent in staying enrolled, but required more than 5 years in their efforts to complete a degree. Among students who began in public 2-year colleges, those in the later cohort were also more likely than their counterparts who enrolled 6 years earlier to be enrolled in a 4-year institution. This result suggests that community college students in the later cohort were more persistent in maintaining their enrollment toward a bachelor’s degree than their counterparts who enrolled 6 years earlier.

It is difficult to pinpoint what accounts for the increase in persistence between the two cohorts and to determine whether or not it is a temporary occurrence. Changes in the demographic composition of the two cohorts may be related to the changes in persistence. Black, Hispanic, and low-income students gained greater representation between 1989–90 and 1995–96. Such students have historically been underrepresented in postsecondary education and often face additional barriers to completing a degree. However, the data indicate that low-income students in public 4-year institutions actually increased their likelihood of succeeding as evidenced by an increase in their 5-year persistence rate. Also, the percentage of students whose parents graduated from college rose over time, which would typically be associated with higher completion and persistence rates.

Changes in students’ reliance on loans may also have influenced their decision to stay enrolled. Students who entered college in 1995–96 were more likely than their counterparts who enrolled 6 years earlier to have taken out student loans to help finance their education. Over the course of their postsecondary studies, nearly one-half of these students borrowed, compared with about one-third of their counterparts who had enrolled earlier. The prospect of leaving college in debt may have motivated these students to stay enrolled and complete a degree.

It is also possible that the economy played a role in changing the rates at which students persisted. Students who began their postsecondary education in 1989–90 and who were still enrolled in college 5 years later (in 1994) encountered a growing economy with plentiful job opportunities (Schwenk and Pfuntner 2003). Those students who had not yet finished their degree may have been attracted to the high-tech industry job market and thought they could join the labor force and return later to finish their degree. On the other hand, students who began college in 1995–96 and who were still enrolled 5 years later (in 2000) faced an economy in the beginning stages of a recession (Martel and Langdon 2001). With fewer job options and greater debt, these students may have been less willing to take a break from their studies and leave without a degree.

Research Methodologynext section