Completing College: A National View of Student Attainment Rates


In the fourth Signature Report, the authors examine the various pathways that students take to complete a college degree or certificate. This report goes beyond traditional graduation rate calculations that focus on first-time full-time students who finish at their starting institution to provide the most comprehensive look at student outcomes on today's campuses. The study includes information about completion rates separately for adult learners and traditional-age students and encompass postsecondary credentials of all levels and types at any institution in any state. Completion rates are also reported separately for exclusively full-time and exclusively part-time students as well as for students who changed their enrollment from full to part time or vice versa (aka mixed enrollment students).

Among the study's findings:

  • Within six years, 12 percent of first-time students completed a degree or certificate at an institution other than the one where they started, raising the overall completion rate from 42 to 54 percent.
  • More than one in five students who completed a degree did so at an institution other than the one where they started – students whose successful outcomes are invisible to traditional graduation rate calculations.
  • Out of the full starting cohort, 3.5 percent received a degree within six years in a state different from where they started representing 6.5 percent of all completions.
  • Overall, 15 percent of two-year starters completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, and nearly two-thirds of those did so without first obtaining a two-year degree.
  • Gains from completions elsewhere were greater for traditional-age students (age 24 or younger at first entry) than for older students (age over 24 at first entry).
  • Older students who enrolled exclusively part time actually had a higher completion rate than traditional-age part-time students.


The complete Signature Report includes detailed summaries on the various pathways to completion and related tables; color charts broken down by enrollment intensity, age at first entry, type of institution, including the completion rates at the starting institution and elsewhere; and insight and future recommendations from the authors.

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