The United States has one of the highest college dropout rates in the industrial world according to a Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2014 report. Administrators are acutely aware that it’s not enough to just get students into college. Once they have enrolled, how and why they depart matters just as equally. But data suggests the situation is improving slowly.
Overall, U.S full-time student retention is 74.4% for full-time students. At 81.6%, four-year private not-for-profit colleges had the highest retention of all education sectors.
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At 55%, four-year for-profit institutions have have the lowest retention among all sectors, but they posted the biggest gains since 2007, when their retention levels were at 45.7%.
Two-year, not-for-profit colleges saw biggest dip over eight years. In 2007, their retention rate was 65%. For fall 2015, it was 60.9%.
Part-time college students count for almost 8 million learners according to Education data. We don’t hear a lot about these students, because federal data primarily tracks first-time, full-time enrollees, but their numbers are rising, along with their importance.
Attending college full-time is a luxury that fewer people can afford in today's climate. To afford their educations, many of today's students work full-time while enrolled part-time to obtain a degree. Helping this growing population of college enrollees get to the finish line is a key test for how the nation will help workers adapt to a changing workforce.
U.S. retention and graduation for part-time college enrollees is abysmal — less than 50% (44.9%) of these students go on to earn a credential in eight years. Across the board, most institutions don’t do a very good job of holding onto part-time students.
Michael Itzkowitz, a senior fellow for higher education policy at Third Way, has been studying what he refers to as "the struggle that institutions are having with graduating part-time students," who, he says, "are now making up 25% of all students in this new data, expected to increase faster than all students."
But they’re graduating much less — only 24% of them earned a credential at an institution, he said.
"For years, colleges have argued that the first-time, full-time student metric doesn’t necessarily represent their student body population. So it’s often true, and I’ve cited studies and other people have cited studies that say first-time, full-time [designation] only covers 47% of students," he said. However, looking more broadly at the full picture, which is being pushed by Congress in efforts to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, "if we were to include these other students historically, this data [around higher education outcomes] might be even less flattering," he said. "We kind of said graduation rates weren’t great before, but now that we look at this more complete data, it’s even worse than we thought."
However, the American Council on Education recently looked at outcomes at minority-serving institutions using this same broadened pool, and found these institutions actually do markedly better under the expanded reporting.
Perhaps it is because these institutions have historically enrolled students who attend "primarily through mixed enrollment, meaning that they move between attending college both full time and part time, and not solely through one or the other," as the authors of the ACE report stated, that these institutions are already conditioned to better meet their needs and achieve greater outcomes.
Still, in spite of the progress that is made with these institutions, disparities remain between full-timers and these more "mixed enrollment" students. When counting all full-time students at an institution, and not just first-time, full-time enrolles, there's an even greater case for using the expanded data set.
Due to very high retention rates for part-time students at less than two-year for-profit institutions, for-profit schools overall were able to claim the highest retention rates among part-time students.