A new study by the research arm of the National Student Clearinghouse shows that 56% of students who started college in 2007 completed their coursework in full, and that 43% of all students completed their degree where they started.
In addition, the researchers found that around 29% of students who started colleges in 2007 are no longer taking classes to complete their degree and 13% of students who started college in 2007 completed their degrees at a different school from where they started, The Associated Press reports.
The dire numbers underscore the challenges that colleges confront as they look to bring in more students and send them out into the world as graduates. The numbers also could complicate matters for students at schools with low graduation rates; the U.S. Department of Education's still-emerging college rating system is considering linking colleges' performances with federal financial aid.
Working with more than 3,500 schools, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reviewed almost 2.4 million records and tracked students as they transferred among schools.
"Conventional approaches fail to capture the complexity of student behavior because they look only at the starting institution where the student first enrolled," said Doug Shapiro, the chief at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
According to the study, students who enter private four-year, not-for-profit schools are more likely to complete their degrees than students who select public or for-profit schools.
In addition, the survey found that students who were 20 years old or younger when they started their degree in 2007 were more likely to complete their degree than were older classmates. Of those students who were 25 or older when they started their studies, 44% did not earn a degree and are no longer enrolled in a program. However, those older students were a minority of all new students in 2007 by a 5-to-1 margin, according to the study.
The researchers also found that among all students who started classwork in 2007, female students enjoyed a 7% point advantage over men when it came to earning a degree in six years.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has unveiled a proposal to link tuition costs, graduation rates and other data to how much federal money each school receives. Also, the U.S. Education Department is working to develop a college rating system that should be published by 2015.
That plan faces fierce opposition from college presidents because no two schools are alike and specific circumstances can create unfair appearances for schools. Congress, too, has been slow to embrace the plan because no elected official wants to have a home-district or -state college labeled a bad deal.