Closing the College Graduation Gap: NCAN'S 2018 Benchmarking Report

Students who receive services from NCAN member organizations enroll in and complete postsecondary education at rates far exceeding their peers. But more work remains to close persistent gaps between low-income and first-generation students’ postsecondary completion outcomes and those of all students nationally.

These are the key findings from NCAN’s just-released report: “Closing the College Graduation Gap: 2018 National College Access and Success Benchmarking Report.” The report also identifies a leak in the completion pipeline for member-served students in years 4 through 6 following high school graduation that contributes to the persistent completion gap.

The report is the fifth in a series from the Benchmarking Project, a collaborative effort between NCAN and its members that derives enrollment, persistence, and completion rate benchmarks of students served by college access and success organizations and measures these against comparable national rates for all students.

The fifth round of data collection saw 69 NCAN members submit data on over 108,000 students from the high school classes of 2011 and 2016 through the National Student Clearinghouse’s StudentTracker for Outreach service. The National Student Clearinghouse finds outcomes data on these students in its extensive database of postsecondary outcomes of students nationwide and returns the results to NCAN for analysis. After five rounds of the project, NCAN now has data from over half a million students served by NCAN members.

“The Benchmarking Project’s latest findings deliver a dual charge to NCAN members,” says NCAN Executive Director Kim Cook. “Continue to provide the services that clearly make an impact on our students relative to their peers, but be aware that there is still work to do to achieve our field’s mission of closing completion gaps.”

Member-served students from low-income high schools (defined as high schools where the proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch is 50 percent or greater) from the class of 2016 had a first fall enrollment rate of 68 percent. This compares favorably to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) benchmarks of 54 percent for students from low-income high schools and 70 percent for students from higher-income high schools.

Class of 2011 first fall enrollers from low-income high schools served by NCAN member programs had six-year completion rates of 35 percent, compared to a 24 percent benchmark for comparable high schools from the NSCRC. Note that these figures may appear low because they include all high school graduates, regardless of whether they ever enrolled in postsecondary education.

Considering students who first enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, 52.4 percent of NCAN member-served students completed a degree or certificate within six years. This trailed NSCRC benchmarks of 56.9 percent of all students nationally and 61.7 percent of students age 20 or younger at entry. The completion rate benchmarks generated for NCAN member-served students have consistently trailed the NSCRC’s completion rate benchmarks for all students nationally.

Although second- and third-year persistence rate benchmarks for NCAN member-served students who enroll immediately following high school exceed or nearly match comparable national benchmarks, the fourth postsecondary year marks the start of a divergence in completion outcomes. The report notes:

“Among member-served students from the class of 2011 who enrolled in the first fall following high school graduation, 17 percent experience their first stopout in years 4 through 6 post-high school. Overall, students in the NSCRC sample are 66 percent more likely to have completed a degree by year 4. By year 6, the students in the NSCRC sample are just 25 percent more likely to have completed, which means that member-served students close the gap somewhat but still trail substantially. In year 6, NCAN member-served students are nearly twice as likely to still be enrolled as students are nationally. The implications of this are double-edged: We would rather have students enrolled than not enrolled at all, but we would also rather students complete their postsecondary programs within six years.”

An encouraging finding is that students who received some form of postsecondary success services from an NCAN member program completed at rates 12 percentage points greater than those who did not. This suggests that receiving some type of success service is associated with higher rates of completion (indeed higher than the overall national completion rate benchmark for all students of 56.9 percent). Unfortunately, because of limitations in data collection, NCAN does not know exactly which types or dosages of success services led to this positive outcome. This provides a promising direction for future research and collaboration between NCAN and its members.

“Since its beginning, the Benchmarking Project has provided signposts for NCAN and our members,” noted Bill DeBaun, NCAN’s director of data and evaluation and the author of the report. “We can see the broad strokes of NCAN members’ impact and also the direction of trends but not always the why, which also merits further investigation.”

After five years of conducting the Benchmarking Project with a consistent, annual data collection, analysis, and reporting strategy, NCAN will pivot in the next year to dive more deeply into the extensive amount of data on hand. Interviews and case studies of member programs whose students achieve positive outcomes will shed light on best practices for the field. This is especially true for programs whose students do not see divergent outcomes in later postsecondary years. Although this means suspending data collection for a year, NCAN anticipates being able to work more closely with members to positively impact the field’s outcomes.

In the near future, NCAN will update the Benchmarking Data Hub with the latest round of data collection and add functionality allowing members to compare their own outcomes to NCAN’s benchmarks and other national comparisons. NCAN members can expect to see more Benchmarking Breakdowns in the weekly Success Digest newsletter, and they can direct questions about the report and requests for specific data points to Bill DeBaun at debaunb@collegeaccess.org.

NCAN is grateful for the support of the NCAN members who have made, and will continue to make, the Benchmarking Project not only possible but also fruitful for the college access and success field. Additionally, NCAN is grateful for the assistance of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, whose work has been critical to this initiative since its inception.