Ohio college students’ degree rates among fastest-growing in U.S.

Undergraduate students receive their diplomas at the University of Dayton’s large commencement ceremony. FILE PHOTO
Undergraduate students receive their diplomas at the University of Dayton’s large commencement ceremony. FILE PHOTO

Ohio college students’ degree completion rates were among the fastest-rising in the nation over the past four years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

College enrollment rates are down in Ohio, as in most other states. But the completion rate focuses on those students who do enroll, and measures what percentage earn a degree within six years of their start date.

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Ohio’s overall completion rate, including both two-year and four-year schools, rose from 53% for students entering in 2009 to 62% for those beginning college in 2013. That nine-point rise ranked behind only Utah’s 10-percentage-point surge, and matched nine-point increases in Iowa, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

“Ohio has long been a leader at taking innovative approaches to helping more students of all ages earn their degree or credential,” the Ohio Department of Higher Education said in a statement. “There is more work to be done, but this report shows that efforts thus far are yielding positive results.”

Ohio Higher Ed said post-secondary credentials are key to strengthening Ohio’s workforce and economy. Currently, only 45.5% of Ohioans age 25-64 have a post-secondary degrees or credential, compared to 48.4% nationally, according to the Lumina Foundation.

Local and state officials are trying to change that in two ways — by getting more people to enroll and pursue a degree or industry certification, and then, as this data shows, by making sure more and more of them are completing that effort.

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Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said a generation ago, many degrees were of similar value. But in recent years as the economy has changed, the field a person studies has taken on much more importance. Some proposed legislation regulating colleges includes wage and employability measurements by field.

“It’s still true that, on average, getting a BA or a graduate degree is better than getting an (associate of arts degree), but the truly remarkable change since the 1980s is that what you take now matters more than where you go to college,” Carnevale said.

For students entering college in 2013, Ohio ranked 17th of 45 reporting states, with a 62.1% overall completion rate, compared with a national rate of 59.7%. In the different sectors, completion was at 67.1% at four-year public colleges, 74.5% at four-year private colleges and 35.7% at public community colleges.

“Most states saw steady, across-the-board gains in overall completion rates,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Compared to the prior cohort year, community-college starters made stronger gains than public four-year starters.”

Ohio went against the grain on that second measure. The state’s community college completion rate for students entering in 2013 rose by 2.6%, solidly higher than the national average increase. But the improvement at four-year schools was even larger.

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Ohio’s completion rate for students in four-year public colleges rose by 3.6% from the 2012 cohort to the 2013 group, by far the highest one-year improvement in the nation.

Artem Gulish, senior policy strategist at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said Ohio’s improvement looked strong on a few different measures. He said if you factor out a 2011 change in counting dual-enrollment students, Ohio ranks No. 1 in improvement for students enrolling from 2011-13.

“They also have a relative method, on how each state does relative to the highest graduation rate,” Gulish said. “If you use that method, Ohio is also one of the top five improvers.”

Both Clearinghouse officials and the Georgetown analysts said college enrollment rose in the worst years of the recession in part because high school graduates who normally would have gone right into the workforce saw the job market and went to college instead.

Sinclair Community College Interim Provost Kathleen Cleary said last month that even with the economy improving, Sinclair is trying to reach out to students of different ages and many different needs.

Sinclair more than doubled the number of degrees and certificates it awarded, from 3,600 in 2015 to 8,100 in 2019, according to Cleary. The school’s associate-degree completion rate rose from 11% to 27% from 2012 to 2018, although many students still come just to earn an industry certificate or other credential short of a degree.