Undergraduate Degree Earners 

January 28, 2021

For the first time in eight years, the steady growth in undergraduate credential earners has come to a standstill due to a decline in first-time graduates.  

Far fewer students earned an associate degree or certificate in spring 2020 than they did in the prior year, accounting for much of the loss in first-time graduates in 2019-20. This demonstrates the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on community college students.

Sharp contrasts emerged between first-time and non-first-time graduates, associate and bachelor’s degree recipients who were first-time graduates, and traditional-age and older graduates.

The Undergraduate Degree Earners report series, published annually, provides demographic and educational profile data for all students graduating with an associate, bachelor’s, or certificate. In the current report, we profile graduates in the 2019-20 academic year, with a focus on first-time versus non-first-time graduates, and changes in demographics and education credentials received over the last eight academic years, since 2012-13. The Appendix provides all the charts and includes state-level and regional trends, in addition to the national graduate profiles by age and type of credential received. The current report features some early impacts of the pandemic on undergraduate credential earners. By comparing the awards between pre- and in-pandemic years by awarding months, the national trends described in this report are indicative of the early pandemic impacts.

Highlights

  • The upward trend in the total number of undergraduate credential earners has stalled in 2020, remaining at 3.7 million due to a decline in first-time graduates (Figure 1). 

  • Sharp contrasts emerged during the pandemic between first-time and non-first-time graduates, further widening the disparity (Figure 4).

  • COVID-19 disproportionally affected first-time graduates who earned a sub-baccalaureate credential (Figure 5).

  • First-time bachelor’s degree earners increased only among traditional-age students (Figure 5).

  • Stacked credentials continue to gain among all undergraduate credential pathways, especially the community college transfer pathways to the bachelor’s degree (Figure 8).

2019-20 College Graduate Profile (N=3.7M)

First-Time Graduates by Type of Award

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