Data Spotlight: Shifting Trends in College Completions

March 12, 2010 by Emsi Burning Glass

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Recent economic unrest has caused many people to rethink career paths and education choices. But even before the Great Recession began, substantial shifts were starting to occur in national college completions.

Since the early 2000s, there’s been a spike in health care degrees, large dips in computers and engineering technology, and slowdown in the education field. These are some of the trends we noticed after analyzing data on a selected group of programs from the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES).

The completion numbers also showed the key role community colleges play in educating the workforce. From 2003-2009, 59% of new graduates and 49% of total graduates in the programs we selected (*see below for more) came at the certificate and associate’s degrees levels. Of course, four-year schools often offer certificate programs and two-year degrees, but CCs are the main providers of these degrees.

The Data

Before we get into the trends, here’s a table that shows national completions from ’03-09 using two-digit CIP codes. This includes degrees at the certificate, associate’s, and bachelor’s level.

One note on the percentage of new grads at the one- and two-year level category: If the percentage is above 100% — like it is for education and engineering technologies — that means there was decline from ’03-09 at the bachelor’s degree level. If there’s a negative percentage — as it is for agriculture operations — that means there was a decline at the certificate and bachelor’s degree level and growth at the bachelor’s level.

Click on table to view a larger version

*There were approximately 15 programs we excluded from this analysis. Most posted very low numbers of graduates at the certificate and associate’s level.

Health Care Boom

The popularity of health care programs exploded in the 2000s. At the certificate and associate’s levels, health professions and related clinical sciences had the greatest growth among completers. At the bachelor’s level, health professions come in second place — behind business management marketing and related support services.

Though the health care industry has been in severe need of graduates over the past decade, the demand for workers is not infinite. A rough estimation of supply vs. demand reveals that between the 2003-2009 academic years, there were nearly 3.7 million completers in health care-related programs, compared to an estimated demand of 2.79 million new and replacement jobs. And given what we know about the health care industry and its seemingly unquenchable need for more workers — this seems like a odd figure.* As a result, actually determining the real gaps and surpluses in the health care industry is a complicated process and not as simple as finding the difference between these two numbers.

*Turnover in health care occupations may be greater than anticipated, which might partly explain the large need for workers despite the labor market numbers.

Computers and Information Bust

No educational field experienced more decline in graduates from ’03-09 than computer and information sciences and support services. All told, the number of graduates dipped by over 53,000 between 2003-2009 — a decrease of more than 8,000 graduates per year. This change could be attributed to Americans’ increased competency with computers, or to the residual effects of the tech bubble bursting in 2000-2001.

There have been some signs of health, however, in computers and information. In 2009, there was a net increase in the number of graduates compared to ’08 for the first time over the time frame of the study. Wary students seem to have overreacted to the signs of decline because unlike the healthcare field, computers and technology industries could stand to benefit from an increase in graduates. There was a estimated shortage of over 147,000 workers nationally from ’03-09.

Shifting Career Paths in Education

Typically education is one of the most popular programs, with an average of over 129,000 students completing programs each year. But unlike some of the other popular programs, education may be losing ground.

Among the top five most popular programs in 2009, all except education experienced at least 16% growth in graduation figures between ’03-09. Education increased by just 2% over this time period. This shift seems to be largely occurring at the bachelor’s degree level; between ’03-07, the number of bachelor’s level graduates in education decreased by over 3,000 at the national level.

On the other hand, more and more students are pursuing education as a program at the certificate and associate’s degree level (almost 5,000 more graduates in 2009 compared to 2003). Bachelor’s level education still dominates the field in terms of training paths toward a career in education— over 80% of the country’s graduates in this field received a bachelor’s degree in 2009.

This data suggests that community college is becoming a more viable option for students who are interested in the education profession.

If you’d like more information on completers and labor market data for your region, please email Josh Wright (