A country’s college enrollment numbers are impressive to see in global league tables and can be a measure of its commitment to its citizens’ education.
But college dropout statistics negate these numbers. It is especially puzzling to policymakers when students, who are financially well-supported by the state, learning institutions, and even by private organizations, enroll in college then drop out somewhere down the road. Considering the 84% high school graduation rate, the college dropout rate is disquieting.
This article shows the enrolment wins of the educational sector, across different locations and demographics. At the same time, it identifies the most vulnerable segments of the United States student population, why they are so, and the factors that contribute to dropout rates. Those that are considering entry into, or are currently within the college system, might well consider these factors rather than becoming part of the fallout statistics in the end. These are numbers that are not out of control. And if government and education policymakers pay attention to these, these trends might be arrested.
In the age of distance education, e-learning, gamified educational apps (like Duolingo, Codeacademy Go, Khan Academy), and the emergence of asynchronous classes especially in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the formal education sector has become concerned if students would still want to return to their classrooms.
The latest global stats are not yet available and the number of graduates by country is beyond the scope of this article. But the good news is that in the United States, high school graduates of 2020 continued to enroll in college despite the dislocations and economic impact of COVID-19. The bad news is that this is but a percentage of high school students who went straightaway to pursue tertiary education is 22% lower than the previous year’s. This drop from 35.3% to 27.7% is 10 times higher than the preceding 2018-2019 decline. This, according to the March 2021 report of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
This is very significant news in a country such as the United States, which ranks 125th in the WorldAtlas Literacy League Table. With a literacy rate of 86%, this world power comes behind countries like Jamaica, Botswana, and Burundi–all with literacy rates of 87%.
What can we expect of these new entrants to college?
General Statistics on College Graduates
Educationdata.org reports the following in-depth statistics across different categories and demographics on the number of college graduates:
Only 1-in-4 high school graduates who enrolled as college freshmen this year will graduate after four years.
A higher percentage of college students who are pursuing bachelor’s degrees (four-year courses) will graduate (60%) than the general population of college students (41%).
Only 18% of bachelor’s degree graduates finished their studies within four years.
Only 31.6% of associate’s degree (two-year courses) students graduate.
Graduation rates at public colleges have increased by 15% from 2010.
Number of College Graduates by Major
The majority of college graduates (730,394 or 18.3%) hold degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). This is followed by business and healthcare degree-holders. The breakdown of the number of college graduates in the U.S. is as follows:
9% of STEM graduates earn associate’s degrees.
2% of STEM graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
23% of STEM graduates earn master’s degrees.
9% of STEM graduates earn doctorate or professional degrees.
699,505 or 16.7% of all graduates earn business degrees.
8% of business graduates earn associate’s degrees.
5% of graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
5% earn master’s degrees.
48% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
631,486 or 15.8% of graduates earn degrees in healthcare.
7% of healthcare graduates earn associate’s degrees.
8% of healthcare graduates have bachelor’s degrees.
4% of graduates earn master’s degrees.
7% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
Liberal Arts & Sciences
444,754 or 11.1% of all graduates earn degrees in liberal arts and sciences.
5% earn associate’s degrees.
10% earn bachelor’s degrees.
56% earn master’s degrees.
02% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
4% of graduates earn education degrees.
3% of education graduates earn associate’s degrees.
32% education graduates earn bachelor’s degrees.
7% earn master’s degrees.
5% earn doctorate or professional degrees.
Number of College Graduates by Race or Ethnicity
From a race perspective, whites have the most number of college graduates but Asians have the biggest share in terms of graduation rate. The breakdown as follows:
White or Caucasian
White or Caucasian students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 62.2%.
2,410,070 or 59.1% of college graduates are White or Caucasian.
7% of White or Caucasian graduates earn 56.2% of associate’s degrees.
51% of White or Caucasian graduates earn 62.3% of bachelor’s degrees.
7% of White or Caucasian graduates earn 55% of master’s degrees.
6% of White or Caucasian graduates earn 60.2% of doctorate or professional degrees.
Hispanic or Latino
Hispanic or Latino students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 41.5%.
532,720 or 13.1% of college graduates are Hispanic or Latino.
40.1% of Hispanic or Latino graduates earn 19.4% of associate’s degrees.
45.3% of Hispanic or Latino graduates earn 12.2% of bachelor’s degrees.
12.3% of Hispanic or Latino graduates earn 8% of master’s degrees.
2.3% of Hispanic or Latino graduates earn 6.6% of doctorate or professional degrees.
Black or African American
Black or African American students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 40.5%.
1% of college graduates are Black or African American.
3% of Black or African American graduates earn 13.3% of associate’s degrees.
2% of Black or African American graduates earn 10.1% of bachelor’s degrees.
5% of Black or African American graduates earn 11.3% of master’s degrees.
1% of Black or African American graduates earn 7.5% of doctorate or professional degrees.
272,410 or 6.7% of college graduates are non-residents.
21,140 or 7.8% of non-resident graduates earn 1.9% of associate’s degrees.
87,120 or 32% of non-resident graduates earn 4.4% of bachelor’s degrees.
141,880 or 52.1% of non-resident graduates earn 17.3% of master’s degrees.
22,270 or 8.2% of non-resident graduates earn 12.1% of doctorate or professional degrees.
Asian/Pacific Islander students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 69.3%.
6.6% of college graduates are Asian/Pacific Islander.
21.7% Asian/Pacific Islander graduates earn 5.3% of associate’s degrees.
53.1% Asian/Pacific Islander graduates earn 7.2% of bachelor’s degrees.
17.7% Asian/Pacific Islander graduates earn 5.8% of master’s degrees.
7.5% Asian/Pacific Islander graduates earn 11% of doctorate or professional degrees.
Students of two or more races enrolled in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 50.4%.
116,350 or 2.9% of college graduates are of two or more races.
27.4% of multiracial graduates earn 2.9% of associate’s degrees.
54.5% of multiracial graduates earn 3.2% of bachelor’s degrees.
14.8% of multiracial graduates earn 2.1% of master’s degrees.
3.3% of multiracial graduates earn 2.1% of doctorate or professional degrees.
American Indian/Alaska Native
American Indian/Alaska Native students in bachelor’s programs have a five-year graduation rate of 39.3%.
24,820 or 0.6% of college graduates are American Indian/Alaska Native.
9% of American Indian/Alaska Native graduates earn 0.9% of associate’s degrees.
9% of American Indian/Alaska Native graduates earn 0.5% of bachelor’s degrees.
5% of American Indian/Alaska Native graduates earn 0.5% of master’s degrees.
7% of American Indian/Alaska Native graduates earn 0.5% of doctorate or professional degrees.
Educationdata.org, February 2021
Number of College Graduates by Gender
Women had made great strides overcoming gender inequality in education since the turn of the 20th century. Beginning in 2015, women had overtaken men in the number of bachelor’s degree holders and in many other fields.
Comparative Male-Female Stats
In 1900, 80.9% of graduates who earned bachelor’s degrees were male.
Only 19.1% of graduates in 1900 were women.
Starting 2015, there have been more female bachelor’s degree holders than male
In private, nonprofit institutions, 70% of women get to graduate.
In private, for-profit institutions, 25% of women graduate.
In public institutions, women have a 64% college graduation rate.
In private, nonprofit institutions, 64% of men get to graduate.
In private, for-profit institutions, 26% of men get to graduate.
In public institutions have a 58% college graduation rate.
Number of College Graduates by Age
Age does matter in terms of one’s chances of graduating from college, at least broadly speaking during enrollment. At the same time, a trend points to an increase in enrolment across the age brackets, from 22 years old to 34 years old.
18 and below
8% of college students who enroll in bachelor’s programs at age 18 or younger graduate within five years.
19 years old
9% of those who enroll in bachelor’s programs at age 19 graduate within five years.
20 to 23 years old
4% of 20- to 23-year-olds who enroll in bachelor’s programs graduate within five years.
4% of 24- to 29-year-olds who enroll graduate within five years; those who are 30 years and older have a college graduation rate of 16.4%.
5% of 20- and 21-year-olds are enrolled as college students. Enrollment in this age group has increased 35.7% since 1970, when 37.3% of 20- and 21-year-olds were students.
Increase in Enrolment (50-years period)
22- to 24-year-olds: increased 27% in 50 years, from 14.9% to 28%.
25 to 29-year-olds: increased 69.3%, from 7.5% to 12.7%
30 to 34-year-year olds: increased 50%, from 4.2% to 6.3%.
Number of College Graduates by State
In most states, the majority of annual graduates are bachelor’s degree holders. College graduation statistics suggest business degrees are increasing in importance; degrees in this field are common among bachelor’s and master’s program graduates throughout the nation. The following are the latest statistics on the number of college graduates by state.
12% of all annual graduates earn their college degrees in California.
District of Columbia graduates are the most likely to have advanced degrees.
In Wyoming and New Mexico, associate’s degree earners make up the majority of graduates.
New England and Midwestern states produce the highest rate of master’s degree holders among graduates.
Midwestern states have the highest rate of doctorate and professional degree holders among graduates.
College graduation statistics indicate that western states may attract more graduates than students; three of the top five metro areas in the United States with the highest percentage of college graduates are in western states.
5% of Boulder, Colorado residents are college graduates.
4% of Ann Arbor, Michigan residents are graduates.
2% of Lawrence, Kansas residents are graduates.
4% of Corvallis, Oregon residents are college graduates.
8% of San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara, California residents are college graduates.
Number of college graduates by state
California graduates 487,890 college students every year
New York graduates 296,648 college students every year
Texas graduates 296,250 college students every year
Florida graduates 241,900 college students every year
Illinois graduates 165,730 college students every year
Pennsylvania graduates 165,630 college students every year
Ohio graduates 132,360 college students every year
Massachusetts graduates 124,140 college students every year
Arizona graduates 115,530 college students every year
North Carolina graduates 113,310 college students every year
Michigan graduates 114,910 college students every year
Virginia graduates 112,240 college students every year
Georgia graduates 96,030 college students every year
New Jersey graduates 88,150 college students every year
Minnesota graduates 84,660 college students every year
Missouri graduates 82,740 college students every year
Indiana graduates 79,830 college students every year
Washington graduates 78,050 college students every year
Maryland graduates 75,513 college students graduate every year
Utah graduates 72,730 college students every year
Colorado graduates 66,530 college students every year
Tennessee graduates 64,930 college students every year
Wisconsin graduates 62,060 college students every year
Alabama graduates 60,660 college students every year
Iowa graduates 51,830 college students every year
Kentucky graduates 49,070 college students every year
Oregon graduates 48,360 college students every year
South Carolina graduates 45,100 college students every year
Connecticut graduates 42,680 college students every year
Oklahoma graduates 40,610 college students every year
Kansas graduates 40,200 college students every year
Louisiana graduates 39,050 college students every year
Mississippi graduates 36,060 college students every year
Puerto Rico graduates 34,460 college students every year
Arkansas graduates 32,340 college students every year
New Hampshire graduates 31,194 college students every year
West Virginia graduates 30,560 college students every year
DC graduates 26,478 college students every year
Nebraska graduates 26,370 college students every year
New Mexico graduates 22,701 college students every year
Idaho graduates 20,135 college students every year
Rhode Island graduates 19,782 college students every year
Nevada graduates 18,790 college students every year
Delaware graduates 14,284 college students every year
Maine graduates 13,169 college students every year
Hawaii graduates 12,813 college students every year
North Dakota graduates 11,292 college students every year
Vermont graduates 10,555 college students every year
South Dakota graduates 10,444 college students every year
Montana graduates 9,837 college students every year
Wyoming graduates 5,833 college students every year
Alaska graduates 3,830 college students every year
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States with Most College Graduates
States with Most College Graduates California : 487890
States with Most College Graduates New York : 296648
States with Most College Graduates Texas : 296250
States with Most College Graduates Florida: 241900
States with Most College Graduates Illinois : 165730
States with Most College Graduates Pennsylvania: 165630
States with Most College Graduates Ohio: 132360
States with Most College Graduates Massachusetts: 124140
States with Most College Graduates Arizona : 115530
States with Most College Graduates North Carolina : 113310
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States with the Least Number of College Graduates
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Nevada: 18790
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Delaware : 14284
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Maine : 13169
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Hawaii: 12813
States with the Least Number of College Graduates North Dakota: 11292
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Vermont: 10555
States with the Least Number of College Graduates South Dakota: 10444
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Montana: 9837
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Wyoming: 5833
States with the Least Number of College Graduates Alaska: 3,830
Military and Territories
U.S. Service Academies give 3,480 bachelor’s degrees and four master’s degrees every year.
Most bachelor’s program graduates and all master’s graduates have degrees in engineering.
After Puerto Rico, Guam confers the most degrees among U.S. territories.
Guam confers 290 associate’s degrees, 500 master’s degrees, and 110 master’s degrees every year.
Most of Guam’s bachelor’s program graduates earn degrees in business while master’s program graduates earn degrees in education.
The Federated States of Micronesia and the U.S. Virgin Islands confer the third- and fourth-most degrees among territories.
All FSM graduates receive associate’s degrees; 70.6% of graduates in the Virgin Islands receive bachelor’s degrees.
In American Samoa, 215 bachelor’s degrees and 10 master’s degrees are conferred every year, most of them in education.
Surprisingly or not surprisingly, affordable and government-funded community colleges (public, non-profit) were the hardest hit during the drop in 2020 Fall enrollment. This seems to be a case for even higher support (i.e. free college education) for students from underserved communities.
But even Harvard reports a 20% drop as freshmen decided to postpone enrollment. The National Student Clearing House Research Center, however, explains that these are students who have a choice, who were not forced by their financial circumstances not to enroll.
Number of College Dropouts
Of the number of college graduates that enroll, there is a good number that is unable to complete their journey towards a college degree or diploma. These are the statistics on the number of college graduates who are forced by their personal circumstances or because of their failure to comply with their college’s standards, to drop out.
Stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Ted Turner, Michael Dell, or Ralph Lauren dropping out of college and becoming billionaires are admirable. But that’s not the story that statistics tell.
In their “Some College, No Degree” study, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) inserts a probe into the now-common U.S. phenomenon of young people starting off on their college education journey but never finishing it. This is the “Some College, No Degree” population. And there are 36 million Americans in this group (2019).
A paper co-authored by World Bank economists on “Returns to Investment in Education: a Decennial Review of the Global Literature” found out that “the private average global return to a year of schooling is 9%.” (Education Economics Journal, Patrinos & Psacharopoulos, 2018) This ROI is better than the benchmark 7% investors use based on the historical average return of the S&P 500 (which is a barometer of the U.S. stock market) after adjusting for inflation.
Dropping out of college means loss of higher incomes that could have been earned by the dropout and puts more burden on the national economy to provide support for these low-income earners via social services.
But in the real world, education is not only a very lucrative investment, with definite returns on investment. Not having a degree or education also has an impact on a variety of social issues: economic and social policy, racial discrimination, ethnic discrimination, gender discrimination, to name a few–which are the subject of related studies on this.
Why are they dropping out?
The cost of college education and the financial capacity of students have always been a constraint and have kept many from graduating, availability of student loans notwithstanding. But the five-year follow-up and study on 29 million “Some College No Degree” students by the NSCRC reveals some trends. Some of these point directly in the direction of the secondary school system, which gave them the credentials to proceed to the tertiary or college level.
Poor grades are not always the main reason why college students drop out. And this is corroborated by statistics reported by education.org. About 40% of students who dropped out have a 3.0 or better GPA. Another 40% have a B average or better.
The following are other reasons why students are giving up on their goal of getting college credentials:
Declining academic standards in some high schools produce graduates who are handicapped in facing the rigors of college life. Many college professors and instructors find themselves overwhelmed by students who are hardly able to read and write and have to constantly take remedial lessons.
Strong push from high school mentors for students to proceed to college without providing proper advice on the increasing costs of investing in a college education and what return on these investments college students can expect.
Slick advertising from the website and brochures of college institutions are designed to raise enrollment and do not really educate prospective students and parents on the full costs of enrolling with them. Much of these are silent about how committed the institution is to get a student through college and to their long-term success.
Some colleges allow a student to sign up for courses without first having declared what major they intend to take. This gives enrollees a wobbly foundation and an ambivalent track, which leads to wasted credits on unneeded courses, unnecessary expenses, and can set them up for failure.
Predatory practices of a few student loan lending institutions. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reports that “predatory lending,” which it defines as the “practice of imposing unjust and abusive loan terms on borrowers,” is a growing problem. The goal of institutions and companies who practice this is to make it difficult for the student borrower to repay the loan and to come up with schemes that will allow them to make more profit beyond the stated interest rate.
National Center for Education Statistics (2016)
COVID-19 and the Pressure to Drop Out
The COVID-19 pandemic has put several more hurdles in the path towards enrolment and graduation.
When in-person classroom meetings aren’t possible due to prevailing government restrictions, the need for good internet access to attend online classes is a limiting factor for underprivileged and low-income students. Some go to public libraries or avail of free Wi-Fi access at fast-food chains. But some students eventually give up on online classes when they could not consistently attend.
If students or their families have been economically affected by the pandemic (i.e. job loss, unable to pay student loans, COVID-19 infection, etc.) they have fewer resources to invest in education. It becomes less of a priority initially then eventually becomes last. Until they finally drop out.
The policy of some schools requiring COVID-19 vaccination for their students is an additional hurdle. Not everyone is willing to be vaccinated. Some, but not all states have drawn guidelines disallowing colleges from requiring their students to show proof of vaccination, from being tested, or from being required to wear masks. In May, Harvard announced that it will require students who will be on campus to be vaccinated. Other schools have made vaccination a requirement for graduation. Johns Hopkins requires vaccination but allows for exemptions based on health and religious reasons.
Concerns over being exposed to the virus also keep some students from enrolling. Some who would normally have enrolled have decided to postpone enrolment until the pandemic eases or goes away.
In many parts of the world, the closure of schools has also stopped students from enrolling.
A combination of these factors has contributed to the dropout rates for the period 2020 to 2021.
College Dropout Statistics
The current college dropout statistics for the United States are as follows:
Overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students: 40%
30% of freshmen drop out
The unemployment rate for college dropouts is 18.6%
40% of college dropouts come from families where the parents didn’t finish college
Students with the highest student loans are less likely to drop out than those with smaller or without loans
The lost annual income opportunity for those who drop out of college amounts to $3.8 billion
Students younger than 19 years old are the least likely to drop out of college, followed by those over 30 years old
Students between 20 and 29 are the most likely to drop out of college
35% drop out of two-year associate programs
Only 10% drop out of four-year baccalaureate degree programs
These are statistics that speak loudly about other factors that contribute to student success and/or failure. It speaks about the high school system that produced them, impacts the income of their economy, how it increases unpaid debt, wastes government expenditure, represents opportunity losses for various sectors, increases government spending on unemployment and poverty, and merits close scrutiny by both government and global institutions that are concerned with education as an instrument of economic upliftment.
Re-enrollment After Dropping Out
The good news is that there can be (college) life after dropping out.
Statistics show that 40% of college drop-outs have a 3.0 GPA or higher. More surprisingly, two-fifths of college dropouts have a B average–or even higher.
The National Student Clearinghouse® (NSC) Research Center reports that many of those who drop out are what they call “near completers.” These are students who may lack just a few credits in order to graduate.
And although the standing statistics show that once a student drops out of college, the chances of him returning to finish a degree is at a low of 30%, it can be done.
“About 940,000 students identified as Some College, No Degree five years ago, in our first report, have since re-enrolled and are now new completers. In addition, more than a million are still enrolled as of December 2018, for a combined success and progress rate of 54% among re-enrollees.” (Shapiro, D., Ryu, M., Huie, F. & Liu, Q., 2019).
This has implications for educational and state policies. Second chances might be just what dropouts need. Learning institutions, as well as government agencies, can conduct similar five-year follow-ups for dropouts, particularly among the “near completers.”
And with the successful attainment of their degrees, the state also stands to benefit in terms of increased income, government revenues, less social services burden, and lower unemployment rates.
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Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment
Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment Private, non-profit 4-year: 37%
Private, non-profit 4-year
Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment Public 4-year: 32%
Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment Private, for-profit 4-year: 28%
Private, for-profit 4-year
Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment Primarily online: 24%
Percent Completed by Institution Type of Re-Enrollment Public 2-year: 18%
Source: "Some College, No Degree, A 2019 Snapshot for the Nation and 50 States" (NSCRC, 2019)
Enrolment, COVID-19 and the Economy
Several dynamics are at are play in the COVID-19 economy. There is a need for education. And educational degrees improve an individual’s capacity to earn. At the other end of the equation, however, are the number of schools that are forced to lockdown due to the pandemic, or are operating under limited conditions. Then there’s the economy–much constricted by safety guidelines that are in effect in transportation, services, trade, etc.
So the question is–if the desire to enroll is present, will there be enough schools to accommodate the headcount? And when students are finally able to successfully hurdle the new challenges of the educational system under COVID-19 restrictions, will there be enough jobs to absorb them?
Across 46 OECD counties, China was the first to close schools in Feb. 2020. By March, all 46 OECD countries closed some or all of their schools. In the United States alone, at least 1,149 colleges and universities have closed down at one time or another. In a wider study, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that it has monitored at least 19 country-wide school closures since the pandemic began and a total of 156.6 million learners have been affected.
These are public policy questions that governments need to address. In its paper, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Education,” the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) looks at how the current pandemic affects the way learning takes place and raises the flag on things that need to be addressed:
Public financing of education in OECD countries
International student mobility
The loss of instructional time delivered in a school setting
Measures to continue students’ learning during school closure
Teachers’ preparedness to support digital learning
When and how should schools reopen
Class size–a critical parameter for the reopening of schools
Vocational education during the COVID-10 lockdown (Schleicher, 2020)
The educational sector, as with all sectors, is in need of resuscitation. But the reality is that funds are being funneled faster into the health sector and to resuscitate affected economies. There needs to be decisive action on the part of governments to notice the devastating effect of the pandemic on students and to consider the long-term effect of this on the workforce and professionals of the future.
In 2020, the Australian government launched the Higher Education Relief Package to support those who experienced displacement in their jobs and need to be retrained. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit announced at about the same time, that it will provide financial support to students who are unable to find work due to the pandemic. The Canada Student Service Grant also committed to providing financial support, particularly to students who are serving their communities during the pandemic.
The Japanese government provided one-time scholarships of up to JPY100,000 (US$918) to students, or extended tuition payments to stem the increasing tide of dropout.
What are college degrees for?
“Our capacity to react effectively and efficiently in the future will hinge on governments’ foresight, readiness, and preparedness. Through their role in developing the competencies and skills needed for tomorrow’s society, education systems will need to be at the heart of this planning. This includes rethinking how the economy should evolve to guard against adversity, and defining the skills, education, and training required to support it,” recommends Schleicher. (“The Impact of COVID-19 on Education,” 2020)
One of the paper’s insights is that, though there is a need to continue to support formal education and colleges, educational efforts also need to channel support to those areas and fields that are deemed paramount for the common good (i.e. health sector, sciences, vocational education).
The Increased number of STEM graduates seems to be a step in the right direction. This reminds us all that education is not just about getting the degree you want. As members of a much troubled and dislocated global community, we also need to consider getting the degrees that the world really needs at this time.
Chen, X., & Simone, S. (2016, September). Remedial Coursetaking at U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experience, and Outcomes Statistical Analysis Report. National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf