The value in nontraditional college completion paths

A new report explains that value of acknowledging nontraditional paths to college completion.

In the past few years, the road to degree completion has diverged into multiple pathways to that lead to that singular, shining destination: graduation day.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently released a state-by-state comparative study of student attainment rates based on student-level data from more than 3,300 participating colleges and universities. The study follows college enrollment behaviors beginning in the fall of 2006 through the spring of 2012.

“Completing College: A State-Level View of Student Attainment Rates” found that when nontraditional paths to college completion are acknowledged, the national completion rate hovers just above 75 percent. Nontraditional students are commonly regarded as “invisible” students and include those who transfer, maintain part-time or mixed enrollment status, or are adult learners.

“By including students [in the study] who are on these nontraditional trajectories, and by using student-level as opposed to institutional-level data, a much more complete view of college completion comes into focus, which can better inform policy,” the press release reads.

Though the report is broken down into multiple comparative tables of states, its national implications also were highlighted.

Nationally, transfers were somewhat common: 12 percent of students who started at a four-year public institution completed their degree at an institution other than the one they started at. Interestingly, in 20 states, students who started at four-year public institutions had a higher completion rate at another institution; Minnesota had the highest student transfer completion rate, at 27 percent.

Similarly, 9.4 percent of all students who started at a two-year public institution received their first credential at a four-year institution, and 3.2 percent of all students who started at a four-year public institution received their first credential or degree at a two-year institution.

Also, 15 percent of students who started at a two-year public institution finished college at a four-year institution, though more than one in six students did so in eight states. Of all the states, Virginia had the most successful two-year to four-year college conversion and completion rates—one in five.

In nearly every state, traditional-age students that started at four-year public institutions had higher six-year completion rates than adult learners.

Researchers say administrators and policy makers can benefit from looking beyond the national data, into the state-specific data, as each state has its own sets of successes and places for improvement.

“By drilling down to individual states’ completion rates, we are able to see student behavior in a very specific way,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center. “This information will help each state included in the study—as well as institutions, school districts, and the federal government—inform policy as they work toward meeting college completion goals.”

It appears that once the stigma is removed, nontraditional college completion pathways can produce just as much success as traditional ones.

Follow Assistant Editor Sarah Langmead @eCN_Sarah.