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Half Of People Who Went To College In The Recession Haven’t Graduated

One side effect of the 2007-09 recession was a surge in college attendance. Nearly 3 million Americans enrolled in college in the fall of 2009,1 half a million more than two years earlier. Some of those were new high school graduates who would have gone straight to work if jobs were available. Others were older workers who lost jobs and went back to school to learn new skills or even to qualify for student loans to cover living expenses.

Six years later, we are starting to get the first clear look at how all those students fared, and the numbers aren’t pretty. According to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, barely half — 52.9 percent — of students who enrolled in fall 2009 had earned a bachelor’s or associate degree six years later. That’s down from a completion rate of 56.1 percent for the students who enrolled in 2007. (Graduation rates were especially low for students at for-profit colleges.)

The decline was bigger for some groups than for others. Among traditional students — full-time students who were 20 years old or younger when they enrolled — the six-year graduation rate was 68.3 percent, down only a bit from 2007. But graduation rates were much lower, and fell much more sharply, for older and part-time students, the same groups that saw big enrollment increases during the recession. Among part-time students who were in their early 20s when they enrolled, just 9.1 percent had degrees six years later, according to the research center:


The low graduation rate shouldn’t come as a big surprise. The recession drove people to attend college who wouldn’t have gone otherwise and who were likely less prepared than other students. Many of them ended up in worse shape than if they hadn’t gone to college in the first place: burdened with thousands of dollars in student debt, but without a degree to show for it. The disappointing results emphasize yet again that merely encouraging people to attend college isn’t enough. We also have to find ways to help them graduate, too.

Read more: Is College Worth It? It Depends On Whether You Graduate.

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  1. The recession technically ended in June 2009, but unemployment hit its peak in October.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.