Percentage of students beginning postsecondary at a North Carolina 4-year public institution who complete a degree or credential within 6 years

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Last updated: 2020

= Top southern state :

only available for totals, not available for all indicators

Percent of students beginning postsecondary at a University of North Carolina system school (4-year public institution) who complete a degree or credential from any institution within 6 years.

North Carolina’s postsecondary completion rate for students who began at a 4-year public institution was 77% in 2020, placing our state 6th among all states. In Iowa, the state with the highest 4-year public postsecondary completion rate, 81% of beginning 4-year public students earned a degree or credential within six years. In Virginia, the top-performing southern state, this rate was 80%.

By 2030, the goal is to have 80% of students who begin postsecondary at a University of North Carolina system school complete a degree or credential within six years. This goal was set by the myFutureNC Commission.

The postsecondary completion rate represents the rate at which degree- or credential-seeking students complete their studies in a timely fashion. This is partly “a measure of the efficiency with which students complete college.” Specifically, high completion rates mean:

  • more degree production, which is beneficial for economic competitiveness; and
  • a smoothly functioning postsecondary system that can serve more students.

Lower completion rates have costs both to individual students and the communities in which they live. Students who do not complete on time:

“experience costs in terms of receiving lower average earnings, having student debt, and losing time while enrolled in school. Additionally… students who fail to complete a college credential are less likely to go on to work in occupations that offer employment benefits (such as health insurance and pension plans), earn family-sustaining wages, or be civically involved.”

Meeting the 2030 Goal

For North Carolina to meet its goal, an additional 1,493 students who begin postsecondary in the UNC System need to complete a degree or credential within six years.

North Carolina’s postsecondary completion rate of 77% for 4-year public institutions means that nearly three in every four students who began postsecondary at one of North Carolina’s public universities in fall 2014 completed a degree or credential by 2020. This completion rate was ten percentage points above the national average (67%).

Table showing Characteristics of first-time, degree-seeking students at UNC, Fall 2014, by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and enrollment intensity.Who are North Carolina’s first-time UNC system students? 

According to research from the National Student Clearinghouse, just over 28,714 first-time, degree-seeking students began postsecondary at one of the sixteen University of North Carolina System schools in fall 2014.

Most of these students were relatively recent high school graduates: 87% were age 20 or under. Students ages 21-24 were 7% of the fall 2012 cohort and “non-traditional” age students (25+) were another 6% of the cohort.

Female students were more common than male students: 54% versus 45%. The sex of 9% of students was unknown.

Enrollment intensity is based on all observed enrollments between fall 2014 and June 2020 (exclusive of summer and short terms). Over seven in every ten (73%) first-time UNC system students were enrolled in postsecondary exclusively full time. Over two in ten (26%) had mixed enrollments, meaning they alternated between full- and part-time enrollments. Few students—1%—had exclusively part-time enrollments. These patterns have large impacts on the 4-year public completion rate: students who enroll full time are more likely to persist in their enrollments and significantly more likely to complete a degree within six years.

By age

Students who began postsecondary in the UNC System at or before age 20 had the highest
Bar chart showing % of first-time, degree-seeking students at UNC who earn degree or credential within 6 years, Fall 2014 Cohort, by age, sex, demographic group, enrollment, and overall NC state average. completion rates: 79% earned a degree or credential within six years. Students who began college at age 25 or older had the next highest completion rate (75%); students who began at ages 21-24 had the lowest six-year completion rate (57%).

By sex

Female students (80%) had higher completion rates than male students (73%).

By race/ethnicity

Asian students who began postsecondary at a UNC System school had the highest postsecondary completion rate: 86% completed a degree or credential within six years. White students (83%) had the next highest rate followed by Hispanic (76%) and black (65%) students.

By enrollment status

Eighty-seven percent of UNC System students who were enrolled exclusively full time completed a degree or credential within six years (87%). In contrast, 50% of students enrolled exclusively part time earned a degree within six years. The completion rate for students with mixed full- and part-time enrollments was 41%, indicating the importance of at least some full-time enrollments for timely degree completion.

Where does the data for postsecondary completion come from?

The data for completion rates by state was downloaded from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

The NSC is a nonprofit organization that provides postsecondary enrollment data and verification for more than 3,600 colleges and universities in the United States.

How was the data calculated?

This was a direct download from the NSC Research Center.

Who is included?

From NSC: “First-time-in-college degree-seeking students who started their postsecondary studies at U.S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2014.”

The NSC data includes transfer students.

Who isn’t included?

Non-first-time students, non-degree-seeking students, students who began postsecondary during summer or spring terms, and students who began postsecondary at an institution outside of the United states are not included. Full details on data exclusions are available here.

State-level data is not reported for states with fewer than three postsecondary institutions in a sector.

Collectively, the institutions covered by the NSC data serve 97% of all postsecondary students nationwide and 98% of students in North Carolina. The NSC data does not cover all institutional sectors equally, however, and has lower coverage rates of for-profit institutions. More detail on NSC coverage is available here.

The data used in the development of this indicator is derived from administrative records and is subject to non-sampling error. 

Who is working on this in NC?

Help improve this section

If you know of an organization that is working on this topic in NC, please let us know on the feedback form.

NC-focused, state-level dashboards

Name: UNC System Dashboards


About: The UNC Data Dashboard is an interactive, online database that gives students, parents, policymakers and taxpayers expanded access to detailed system data on selected core measures.

Name: NC Tower


About: NC TOWER is a web-based delivery system providing aggregate information on students who attended public universities and community colleges in North Carolina. These data include programs of study, degrees attained, further enrollment, and wage and employment information.

Further research and literature

Bailey, M., & Dynarski, S. (2011). Gains and gaps: changing inequality in U.S. college entry and completion. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Burrus, J., Elliott, D., Brenneman, M., Markle, R., Carney, L., Moore, G., Betancourt, A., et al. (2013). Putting and Keeping Students on Track: Toward a Comprehensive Model of College Persistence and Goal Attainment. Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Long, B. T. (2018). The College Completion Landscape: Trends, Challenges, and Why it Matters. Washington, DC: Third Way.

Shapiro, D., Dundar, A., Huie, F., Wakhungu, P. K., Bhimdiwala, A., & Wilson, S. E. (2018). Completing College: A National View of Student Completion Rates – Fall 2012 Cohort (Signature Report No. 16). Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Tippett, R., & Kahn, N. (2018a). Postsecondary Completion Report: 2009-2011 North Carolina Public High School Graduates. Raleigh, NC: myFutureNC.

Tippett, R., & Kahn, N. (2018b). Postsecondary Pathways & Barriers to Opportunity Report: 2009-2011 NC Public High School Graduates. Raleigh, NC: myFutureNC.


Who is identified as a first-time student?

The National Student Clearinghouse defines first-time students as individuals who “did not have a previous enrollment record, as shown in the Clearinghouse data, prior to the first day of enrollment in the fall of 2012, unless the previous enrollment record was before the student turned 18 years old (dual enrollment).” This analysis further excluded individuals who had previously received “any degree or certificate from a postsecondary institution prior to the first day of enrollment in the fall of 2012…unless the award date was before the student turned 18 years old (dual enrollment).”

Does this indicator include students who may be casual course takers with no intention of earning a degree?

No. The National Student Clearinghouse attempts to limit this analysis to only degree-seeking students and “attempted to exclude non-degree-seeking, casual course takers from the [analysis]. For students who first enrolled in four-year institutions, non-degree-seeking students were defined as those who had only one enrollment record with intensity of less than half time.” Students who started at two-year institutions were identified as non-degree-seeking students “if they failed to meet one of the following criteria: (1) one or more full-time enrollments before August 11, 2013; and (2) one or more three-quarter time [enrollments] before December 31, 2013; and (3) two enrollment terms with half-time status before December 31, 2013.”


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