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Report Shows College Enrollment Up, Graduation Rates Flat

Access to higher education is improving, as data from the U.S. Department of Education show many more students are going to college. Yet graduation rates have not budged, underscoring the challenge ahead for the country on the completion front.

Overall college enrollment grew by 7.1 percent from fall 2008 to fall 2009 to nearly 21 million, compared with an increase of 4.8 percent in 2008 and 2.6 percent the year before, according to the new National Center for Education Statistics First Look Report released yesterday.

For-profit schools posted the biggest gains in student enrollment last year. However, the data reflect enrollment before the Government Accountability Office investigation of sketchy recruiting practices and the intense scrutiny in congressional hearings. Enrollment in the for-profit sector makes up about 10.6 percent of students in higher education in the country (2.2 million), compared with 9.2 percent the year before.

Public universities (with about 70 percent of postsecondary students) experienced a 6 percent bump in enrollment. Private, nonprofits, which represent about 18 percent of the students enrolled, increased just 3 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Over the past five years, college enrollment overall has grown by 18.4 percent, with public-institution growth outpacing that of private schools.

However, even when you allow students six years to get a degree, graduation rates have remained flat. This year's report reflects a 57 percent graduation rate for students at four-year colleges. In the 2008 report, it was 56 percent and the year before 57 percent. Success does vary by the type of school.

Here's the breakdown of the six-year graduation rates for cohorts followed from 2003 until fall 2009:

•Private, nonprofit four-year schools: 65 percent
•Public four-year institutions: 56 percent
•For-profits, four-year sector: 20 percent
•For-profit, two-year degree programs: 60 percent
•Public two-year community colleges: 22 percent

For the first time, the NCES findings include retention rates—the proportion of first-time students each fall who come back the next fall. Overall, retention rates were 71.9 percent for full-time students and 42.5 percent for those enrolled part time.

Here's how the different types of school stack up with retention rates:

•Private, nonprofit four-year colleges: 80 percent
•Public four-year institutions: 79 percent
•For-profits, four-year: 54 percent
•For profits, two-year: 69 percent
•Private nonprofits, two-year: 61 percent
•Public, two-year: 59 percent

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