Majority of first-time college students are pursuing certificates or associate’s degrees

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— The majority of first-time college students enroll in certificate or associate's degree programs – not bachelor's degree programs, according to a study conducted by RTI International and released by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.

The study found that more than half of 2011–12 beginning college students enrolled in programs below the bachelor's degree, 42 percent were working on an associate's degree and 10 percent were seeking a certificate.

The study also examines these students' persistence and attainment three years later.

The report is based on newly released data from the 2012/14 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study. The study looked at a nationally representative longitudinal study of all students who began postsecondary education for the first time during the 2011–12 academic year and followed the outcomes of these students three years after their initial enrollment.

"Bachelor's degree students tend to receive much of the focus in higher education, but the federal government and foundations have increased their interest in attainment of shorter subbaccalaureate credentials, specifically undergraduate certificates and associate's degrees," said Nicole Ifill, an education analyst at RTI and lead author of the report. "Our research shows, this attention is deserved."

Three years after beginning post-secondary education, the study found that almost a third of certificate students (32 percent) had left postsecondary education without earning any credential.  The same was true for just under half of all associate's degree students (44 percent).  However, less than a fifth (16 percent) of students in bachelor's degree programs had similarly dropped out.

"In order for these students and for the United States to be successful, we have to improve subbaccalaureate students' degree completion," Ifill said. 

The report indicates that 61 percent of students starting in a certificate program and 17 percent of those starting in an associate's degree program had attained a credential 3 years later.  

"The low completion rate for associate's degree students should not be considered problematic just yet," Ifill said. "In contrast to certificate programs that are designed to take less than two years, associate's degrees typically take two years of full-time study. Almost 40 percent of students pursuing associate's degrees continued to be enrolled at the 3-year mark and could still graduate."

"This study is unique in that it acknowledges that students can and do attend more than one institution, and therefore collects data on students' persistence and attainment anywhere within postsecondary education, rather than at a specific institution," Ifill said. "This is important because more than a quarter of 2011–12 beginning students attended two or more institutions within three years."   

The study also follows students who both do and do not enter college immediately after high school. 

The last time these data were available were for students who began college in 2003-04.  There are now four Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Studies, (for students beginning college in 1989–90, 1995–96, 2003–04, and 2011–12), which allows researchers to examine completion trends.