First-Time Graduates and Graduates with Prior Awards

The number of students earning their first undergraduate degree in 2016-17 (first-time graduates) was 2,232,069, a slight decrease of 0.3 percent compared to 2015-16 (Figure 1). In contrast, the number of graduates earning their second or third undergraduate credential (graduates with prior awards) grew by 3.4 percent to 666,885. The overall number of students who earned an undergraduate degree in 2016-17 was 2,898,954 a 0.5 percent increase from 2015-16.

Overall, fewer first-time college graduates were added to the population in 2016-17, but the trend varies markedly by age group (Figure 2). First-time graduates (associate and bachelor’s degrees combined) in the 25 and over age group dropped by 36,113 (-5.5 percent) compared to the previous year, reflecting postrecession enrollment declines among older students. However, first-time graduates under the age of 25 saw continued growth in 2016-17, with their numbers having increased by 29,011 (+1.8 percent) compared to the previous year.

As a share of all undergraduate degree earners, first-time graduates declined from 77.6 percent to 77.0 percent in 2016-17. This continues a recent trend, in which the share of first-time graduates has dropped over half a percentage point per year since 2012-13 (Figure 3). For bachelor’s degree earners, the most common prior credential level was an associate degree. Of students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2016-17, 75.1 percent were first-time graduates (had no prior award), 3.2 percent had previously earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 20.3 percent had previously earned an associate degree, and 1.4 percent had previously earned a certificate (Figure 4).  For associate degree earners, certificates and associate degrees were the most common prior credential levels. Of students who earned an associate degree in 2016-17, 80.9 percent were first-time graduates (had no prior award), 3.7 percent had previously earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 7.7 percent had previously earned an associate degree, and 7.7 percent had previously earned a certificate (Figure 5).

ABOUT THE DATA

Based on student-level enrollment and degree data from the National Student Clearinghouse, the Undergraduate Degree Earners Report differentiates between students earning their first postsecondary award and students earning additional undergraduate awards on top of ones earned in prior years. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary award. In Figures 1 and 2 only recipients of associate and bachelor’s degrees are counted as first-time graduates. However, the prior awards which distinguish first-time graduates from repeat graduates include both degrees and certificates. Counts may differ from those reported in earlier versions of this report, to reflect additional historical data reported to the Clearinghouse since publication. More information on Clearinghouse degree coverage and definitions can be found in the notes section at the end of this report.

Figure 1: Number of First-Time Graduates and Graduates with Prior Awards

Figure 1 shows counts of students earning undergraduate degrees (bachelor’s and associates combined) in each academic year, disaggregated by first-time graduate status. The number of graduates with prior awards (which may include degrees or certificates) has increased steadily in recent years.

Figure 2: Number of First-Time Graduates by Age Group 

 

 

Figure 2 shows counts of students earning undergraduate degrees (bachelor’s and associates combined) in each academic year, disaggregated by age group. Since 2012-13, the number of first-time graduates in the 25 and over group has declined by nearly 122,000, while the number of first-time graduates in the under 25 category has increased by over 116,000.

Figure 3: Distribution of Undergraduate Degree Earners by Prior Award Status

Figure 3 shows that in 2012-13, 20.5 percent of all bachelor’s and associate degree recipients were students who had already earned a postsecondary award in a previous year. By 2016-17, students with prior awards accounted for 23.0 percent of all undergraduate degree recipients.

Figure 4: Bachelor’s Degree Earners – Distribution of Prior Awards

Figure 4 shows the percentage distribution of prior awards for students who earned a bachelor’s degree in each of the last five academic years. In 2016-17, 75.1 percent were first-time graduates (had no prior award), 3.2 percent had previously earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 20.3 percent had previously earned an associate degree, and 1.4 percent had previously earned a certificate.

Figure 5: Associate Degree Earners – Distribution of Prior Awards

Figure 5 shows the percentage distribution of prior awards for students who earned an associate degree in each of the last five academic years. In 2016-17, 80.9 percent were first-time graduates (had no prior award), 3.7 percent had previously earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, 7.7 percent had previously earned an associate degree, and 7.7 percent had previously earned a certificate.

Table 1: Undergraduate Degree Earners by Level of Prior Award

2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-17
Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent
Bachelor’s Degree Earners
Prior Master’s

3,388

0.2% 3,404  0.2% 3,676  0.2% 3,815  0.2% 3,808 0.2%
Prior Bachelor’s

52,344

2.8%    54,748 2.9%  56,466 3.0%  57,343  3.0% 58,529 3.0%
Prior Associate

342,352

 18.6%   348,737   18.7%   368,117 19.5%  379,052  19.8%  396,642  20.3%
Prior Certificate

21,560

 1.2%  23,069  1.2%  24,949  1.3%  25,163  1.3%  26,848  1.4%
First-Time Graduates (No Prior Award)

1,420,065

 77.2%  1,438,244  77.1%  1,438,891 76.0%  1,451,699   75.7%  1,465,357 75.1%
Total Bachelor’s Degree Earners

1,839,710

 100.0%  1,884,217  100.0%  1,892,099  100.0%  1,917,071  100.0%  1,951,183 100.0%
Associate Degree Earners
Prior Master’s

2,418

 0.2%  2,665  0.3%  2,960  0.3%  2,807  0.3%  2,770  0.3%
Prior Bachelor’s

28,413

 2.9%  30,449  3.1%  31,628  3.2%  31,167  3.2%  32,236 3.4%
Prior Associate

64,026

 6.5%  67,744  7.0%  68,370  7.0%  70,143  7.3% 72,877   7.7%
Prior Certificate

62,809

 6.4%  68,552 7.1%  73,116  7.5%  75,497   7.8%  73,177 7.7%
First-Time Graduates (No Prior Award)

820,153

83.9% 801,583 82.6%  801,767 82.0% 787,052  81.4%  766,712  80.9%
Total Associate Degree Earners

977,819

 100.0%  970,993 100.0%  977,841  100.0%  966,666  100.0%  947,771  100.0%
Certificate Earners
Prior Master’s

16,657

 2.7%  19,528 3.1%  20,047  3.2%  19,422  3.1%  19,844 3.3%
Prior Bachelor’s

50,013

 8.2%  50,500 8.1%  51,368  8.2%  51,145  8.1%  48,193 7.9%
Prior Associate

41,001

 6.7%  41,903  6.7% 44,531 7.1%  48,367  7.7%  47,579 7.8%
Prior Certificate

46,333

 7.6%  50,075 8.0%  54,330  8.7%  58,909  9.4%  62,609  10.3%
First-Time Graduates (No Prior Award)

456,002

 74.8%  460,422  74.0%  454,192 72.7%  450,451  71.7%  429,522 70.7%
Total Certificate Degree Earners

610,005

 100.0%  622,429 100.0%  624,469  100.0%  628,295  100.0% 607,748  100.0%


Table 1 
provides counts of undergraduate degree earners grouped by the level of their most recent prior award (if any). Students with no prior award are classified as first-time graduates. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30.

Table 2: Count of First-Time Graduates Earning Bachelor’s Degrees by Gender, Age, and Institutional Sector

2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Earning Bachelor’s Degrees

1,420,065

1.6%  1,438,244  1.3% 1,438,891  0.0%  1,451,699  0.9%  1,465,357  0.9%
Gender
Women

794,204

1.3% 802,714 1.1%  799,608  -0.4%  806,672  0.9%  814,180  0.9%
Men

625,861

 2.0%  635,530  1.5%  639,283 0.6%  645,027  0.9%  651,177 1.0%
Age Group
Under 25

1,091,417

 2.1% 1,127,299  3.3%  1,123,890  -0.3%  1,148,190 2.2%  1,173,028 2.2%
25-29

143,916

 0.6%  142,397  -1.1%  142,312  -0.1%  141,492  -0.6%  138,148  -2.4%
30-39

96,604

1.0% 89,739  -7.1%  91,838  2.3%  87,640  -4.6%  83,965  -4.2%
40-49

57,102

 -2.4% 50,645  -11.3%  50,950  0.6%  47,274  -7.2%  43,500  -8.0%
50 and Over

28,860

1.6%  26,495 -8.2%  28,468  7.4%  26,214  -7.9%  25,008  -4.6%
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

892,542

 0.7%  924,076  3.5%  903,792  -2.2%  922,666  2.1%  942,287   2.1%
4-Year Private Nonprofit

449,245 

 3.6%  454,184 1.1%  456,745  0.6%  459,612  0.6%  459,134 -0.1%
4-Year Private For-Profit

  77,481

0.8%  59,961 -22.6%  78,351  30.7%  69,407  -11.4%  63,923 -7.9%


Table 2
shows the count of bachelor’s degree recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time college graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30.

Table 3: First-Time Graduates Earning Bachelor’s Degrees as Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degree Earners by Gender, Age, and Sector

2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Earning Bachelor’s Degrees as Percentage of All Bachelor’s Degree Earners

77.2%

-0.8 77.0% -0.2  76.0%  -0.9  75.7%  -0.3  75.1% -0.6
Gender
Women

75.3%

 -1.0  75.1%  -0.2  73.9%  -1.2  73.4%  -0.4  72.8%  -0.7
Men

79.7%

-0.7 79.5% -0.2  79.0% -0.6  78.8%  -0.2  78.2%  -0.5
Age Group
Under 25

88.2%

-0.4  88.0%  -0.2  87.8%  -0.2 87.5%  -0.2  87.0%  -0.5
25-29

56.5%

-1.0  55.6%  -0.9  54.5%  -1.2  53.5%  -1.0  51.9%  -1.6
30-39

48.7%

-1.7  47.0% -1.7  45.3% -1.7 43.9%  -1.3  42.6%  -1.4
40-49

57.2%

-2.3  54.1% -3.1  52.1% -2.0 50.0% -2.1  47.1% -2.9
50 and Over

62.4%

-2.8 61.0% -1.4 59.9% -1.1 57.8% -2.1  56.3%  -1.5
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

76.8%

-1.3 76.2% -0.7 75.4% -0.7 75.1% -0.4 74.3% -0.7
4-Year Private Nonprofit

82.8%

-0.3  82.3% -0.5 81.7% -0.6 81.2%  -0.5 80.4% -0.8
4-Year Private For-Profit

57.6%

0.3 58.5% 0.8 58.1% -0.3 57.0% -1.2 56.7% -0.3


Table 3
shows the percentage of bachelor’s degree recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30.

Table 4: Count of First-Time Graduates Earning Associate Degrees by Gender, Age, and Sector

  2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Receiving Associate’s Degrees

820,153

-3.4% 801,583 -2.3% 801,767 0.0% 787,052 -1.8% 766,712 -2.6%
Gender
Women

496,429

 -3.7% 481,493 -3.0% 481,451 0.0% 473,732 -1.6% 456,591 -3.6%
Men

323,724

-2.9% 320,091 -1.1% 320,316 0.1%  313,320 -2.2% 310,121 -1.0%
Age Group
Under 25

402,275

-0.1% 410,131 2.0% 426,313 3.9% 432,541 1.5% 436,714 1.0%
25-29

144,326

-4.9% 141,064 -2.3% 137,550 -2.5% 136,756  -0.6% 131,484 -3.9%
30-39

151,795

-6.5% 143,124 -5.7% 135,965 -5.0% 128,725 -5.3% 120,427 -6.4%
40-49

81,178

-9.0% 71,396 -12.0% 66,894 -6.3% 58,696 -12.3% 51,816 -11.7%
50 and Over

37,475

-7.2% 33,656 -10.2% 32,450 -3.6% 28,719 -11.5% 25,054 -12.8%
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

113,243

-4.3% 129,914 14.7% 120,500 -7.2% 127,529 5.8% 147,956 16.0%
4-Year Private Nonprofit

42,512      

8.1% 42,883 0.9% 41,137 -4.1% 41,507 0.9% 37,888 -8.7%
4-Year Private For-Profit

107,447

 -14.7% 74,223  -30.9% 82,229 10.8% 55,769 -32.2% 43,777 -21.5%
2-Year Public

496,976

0.5% 503,452 1.3% 510,044 1.3% 519,198 1.8% 498,245 -4.0%

Table 4 shows the count of associate degree recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30

Table 5: First-Time Graduates Earning Associate Degrees as Percentage of All Associate Degree Earners by Gender, Age, and Sector

2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Receiving Associate’s Degrees

83.9%

-1.3 82.6% -1.3 82.0% -0.6 81.4% -0.6 80.9% -0.5
Gender
Women

82.6%

-1.5 81.0% -1.6 80.7% -0.3 80.0% -0.7 79.4% -0.6
Men

86.0%

-1.1 85.0% -1.0 84.1% -0.9 83.7% -0.3 83.2% -0.5
Age Group
Under 25

90.6%

-0.9 90.0%  -0.6 89.9% -0.1 89.3% -0.6 89.0% -0.4
25-29

77.9%

 -1.7 76.3% -1.6 75.2% -1.2 74.4% -0.7 73.3% -1.1
30-39

77.0%

-2.1 74.6% -2.3 73.0% -1.6 72.3% -0.7 71.0% -1.3
40-49

80.9%

-2.0 77.8% -3.1 76.1% -1.7 74.2% -1.9 72.1% -2.1
50 and Over

80.9%

-1.6 77.7% -3.3 76.5% -1.2 74.1% -2.4 72.6% -1.5
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

85.3%

-0.9 85.2% -0.1 82.7%  -2.5 84.1% 1.4 84.2% 0.1
4-Year Private Nonprofit

86.3%

0.4 86.0% -0.3 85.9% -0.1 86.6% 0.6 85.8% -0.8
4-Year Private For-Profit

93.1%

-0.7 91.4% -1.7 89.5% -2.0 85.7% -3.7 83.9% -1.9
2-Year Public

81.7%

 -1.3 80.9% -0.8 80.5% -0.4 80.1% -0.4 79.1% -1.0


Table 5
shows the percentage of associate degree recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30.

Table 6: Count of First-Time Graduates Earning Certificates by Gender, Age, and Sector

2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Receiving Certificates

456,002

-2.5% 460,422 1.0% 454,192  -1.4% 450,451 -0.8% 429,522 -4.6%
Gender
Women

269,478

-4.8% 266,681 -1.0% 262,222 -1.7% 255,686 -2.5% 244,012 -4.6%
Men

186,524 

1.0% 193,741 3.9% 191,970 -0.9% 194,765 1.5% 185,510 -4.8%
Age Group
Under 25

205,567

1.3% 212,836 3.5% 218,141 2.5% 222,851 2.2% 219,169 -1.7%
25-29

78,787 

-1.4% 75,678 -3.9% 75,708 0.0% 75,678 0.0% 71,020 -6.2%
30-39

84,418

-5.3% 82,448 -2.3% 78,810 -4.4% 76,230 -3.3% 71,750 -5.9%
40-49

52,443

-8.1% 51,798 -1.2% 47,678 -8.0% 43,913 -7.9% 39,586 -9.9%
50 and Over  33,686 -10.3% 36,520 8.4%  33,003 -9.6% 30,880 -6.4% 27,391 -11.3%
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

27,833

-33.7% 29,791 7.0% 35,138 17.9% 37,182 5.8% 38,983 4.8%
4-Year Private Nonprofit

4,511

47.5% 5,656 25.4% 4,943 -12.6% 4,584 -7.3% 4,316 -5.8%
4-Year Private For-Profit

20,300

5.2% 21,182 4.3% 18,997 -10.3% 18,622 -2.0% 21,638 16.2%
2-Year Public

283,817

1.0% 295,966 4.3% 299,796 1.3% 301,812 0.7% 288,675 -4.4%


Table 6
shows the count of certificate recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30. In this report, certificate refers to undergraduate and graduate-level certificates, since it was not possible for institutions to make this distinction in Clearinghouse data submissions prior to 2013-14. Certificate earners with no prior awards are classified as first-time graduates.

Table 7: First-Time Graduates Earning Certificates as Percentage of All Certificate Earners by Gender, Age, and Sector

2012-13 Change from Prior Year 2013-14 Change from Prior Year 2014-15 Change from Prior Year 2015-16 Change from Prior Year 2016-17 Change from Prior Year
Overall
First-Time Graduates Receiving Certificates

74.8%

-0.6 74.0% -0.8 72.7% -1.2 71.7% -1.0 70.7% -1.0
Gender
Women

75.2%

-1.0 74.3% -0.9 73.5% -0.8 72.3% -1.3 71.5%  -0.7
Men

74.1% 

0.1 73.5% -0.6 71.7% -1.8 71.0% -0.7 69.6% -1.4
Age Group
Under 25

85.6%

0.5 85.6% 0.0 85.0% -0.6 84.1% -0.8 83.5% -0.7
25-29

66.0%

0.0 64.9% -1.0 64.3% -0.6 62.8% -1.6 62.0% -0.7
30-39

65.0%

-1.9 63.3% -1.7 61.3% -2.0 59.7% -1.6 58.4% -1.3
40-49

71.6%

-2.4 68.9% -2.8 65.9% -3.0 64.1% -1.8 61.0% -3.1
50 and Over

73.7%

-2.2 72.9% -0.8 69.1% -3.9 68.0% -1.0 65.2% -2.9
Institutional Sector
4-Year Public

52.7%

-3.4 50.2% -2.5 50.0% -0.1 50.9% 0.9 50.0% -0.9
4-Year Private Nonprofit

37.8%

5.6 38.7% 0.9 37.6% -1.1 33.7% -3.9 31.3% -2.4
4-Year Private For-Profit

70.6%

2.4 73.5% 2.9 68.1% -5.4 68.0% -0.2 74.3% 6.3
2-Year Public

75.1%

-1.1 74.5% -0.6 73.3% -1.2 72.7% -0.6 71.4% -1.3


Table 7
shows the percentage of certificate recipients in each year and category who were first-time graduates. First-time graduates are defined as students who earned a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, or certificate as their first postsecondary credential. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30. Certificate earners with no prior awards are classified as first-time graduates.

Notes on the Data

Definition of First-Time Graduate

The Undergraduate Degree Earners Report, published annually by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, provides counts of first-time graduates and graduates with prior awards by institutional sector, award level, age group, and gender. Award recipients are considered to be first-time graduates if the award received in the report year is their first postsecondary award from a U.S. Title IV, degree-granting institution. Each student is counted as a first-time graduate only once, in the academic year of his or her first postsecondary credential. Academic years run from July 1 to June 30. A student who earned two credentials in the year of his or her first credential is counted under the highest credential level earned in that year. For example, if a student whose first award was a certificate received in December 2016 subsequently received an associate’s degree in May 2017, this student would be counted in this report as a first-time graduate at the associate’s degree level in academic year 2016-17. Certificate earners with no prior awards are classified as first-time graduates.

Degree Coverage and Weighting

The National Student Clearinghouse collects graduation information from its participating institutions via two data reporting services: Enrollment Reporting (ER) and DegreeVerify (DV). Enrollment Reporting has slightly higher data coverage rates, but for credentials reported prior to 2013-14, it generally includes only basic completion information, such as graduation indicator and the date of graduation. DV includes enhanced information on completions, including degree title, major, level, and CIP code, and comprised 94 percent of credentials granted by U.S. Title IV degree-granting institutions as of fall 2017. The overall set of undergraduate degree earners for a particular year is based only on awards reported to DV, but prior award status was assigned using records from both ER and DV. In cases where the prior award did not appear in a DV record (approximately 2.2% of the 2016 bachelors’ degree earners, 2.8% of associate degree earners and 2.8% of certificate earners), the level of the prior award was imputed based on the institution level and related enrollment records. To adjust for the DV participation rate, weights were applied to each degree record included in this report. Weights were derived by calculating the inverse of the rate of degree data coverage for each combination of year, institution sector, award level (bachelor’s, associate’s, or certificate), and student gender. To obtain degree data coverage for each combination of year, sector, and award level, Clearinghouse degree data were compared to IPEDS Completions data for all U.S. Title IV, degree-granting institutions.

Imputation of Gender

Institutions reported student gender to the Clearinghouse for approximately half of all students included in this report. The genders of the remaining students were imputed using a table of name-gender pairs that the Research Center developed using data publicly available from the Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration as well as the institution-reported data. The imputation used only those pairs in which the name had at least two instances and was associated with a single gender in at least 95 percent of the instances. The imputation is accurate in 99.6 percent of the cases with known gender. A detailed document on the development of our approach resides on the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Working with Our Data” Web page.

Degree-Granting Status

When referencing IPEDS counts of postsecondary awards, it is important to distinguish degree-granting institutions from non-degree-granting institutions. Clearinghouse certificate and degree data, as well as the IPEDS comparison data used for the weighting calculation in this report, are limited to degrees and certificates awarded by U.S. Title IV-eligible, degree-granting institutions.