Drop in 4-Year Graduation Rates among Black and Latino Students, but Community College Enrollment Increases

A new report has found that the completion rate for Black and Latino students at four-year colleges declined during the pandemic, but saw growth at two-year community colleges. While overall completion rates stalled for students nationwide, community colleges were better equipped to handle the challenges of the pandemic with resources like online classes. Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, stated that this led to greater retention rates.

According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, analyzing trends for students six years after enrolling in postsecondary education, the completion rate for students starting in fall 2017 was 62.2 percent, which is the same as in 2015. However, Black and Latino students who enrolled in fall 2017 saw their completion rates drop to 43.4 percent and 50.1 percent, respectively, compared to those enrolled in 2016.

Data courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (Chart: Meghan Gallagher/The 74)

Wyner explained that the decline in completion rates for Black and Latino students can be attributed to factors such as the need to work or take care of siblings due to job loss during the pandemic. Income and wealth disparities also played a role in preventing these students from enrolling and staying in college.

At public four-year colleges, completion rates for Black and Latino students dropped to 48.7 percent and 56.1 percent, respectively, compared to those enrolled in 2016. On the other hand, community colleges saw an increase in completion rates for Black and Latino students, with rates of 31.6 percent and 38 percent, respectively, compared to those enrolled in 2016.

Data courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (Chart: Meghan Gallagher/The 74)

Wyner attributed the increase in completion rates at community colleges to their focus on accommodating students with diverse educational needs and their prior investment in online learning. Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic insights at Modern Campus, added that young students view college as a means to an end and often leave their programs once they feel they have gained the necessary skills for short-term employability.

According to Wyner, Black and Latino students see community college as a more affordable option compared to four-year colleges, as public institutions have higher tuition rates. This disparity in costs contributes to the decline in completion rates for these students at four-year colleges.

In fall 2017, over 2.4 million students enrolled in postsecondary education, representing a 1.2 percent increase compared to 2016. However, fewer of these students have completed their programs as of 2023, indicating that the issue is not solely due to slower progress during the pandemic. The completion rate gap between female and male students also continued to widen, with female students achieving a rate of 65.6 percent compared to 58.4 percent for males.

Data courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (Chart: Meghan Gallagher/The 74)

Wyner identified the lack of hands-on learning opportunities as a factor that negatively affects male student retention. He suggested that incorporating practical experience alongside theoretical instruction could help increase male student engagement. Additionally, societal expectations and a disconnect from the traditional higher education system may contribute to male students feeling disconnected from their studies.

Looking ahead, Wyner emphasized the importance of colleges addressing the value they provide to students, as it plays a significant role in their decision to stay enrolled or leave. If programs do not effectively deliver value to students, they may choose to leave.

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