In spite of years of efforts to raise them, including financial incentives for public colleges and universities, America’s higher-education graduation rates are dropping at an accelerating rate, a new report shows.

The proportion of people who entered college in 2009 and have since graduated has declined at every type of institution, and for every kind of student, from traditional aged to adult learners.

That is despite of a pledge by President Barack Obama, also in 2009, to restore the United States to first in the world in the proportion of its population with college and university degrees, and legislation in many states tying budget allocations to public universities to graduation rates and other measures.

Among the 2009 starters, 53 percent have graduated within the subsequent six years, down 2 percentage points from the class that entered in 2008, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, an independent organization that tracks this. That’s even as the White House and others warn that more degree holders are needed to fill jobs in the knowledge economy.

The rate at which students left school without earning any degree also rose, from about 30 percent to 33 percent. That means 153,000 students appear to have dropped out altogether with nothing to show for their educations except, in at least some cases, debt.

The biggest drop came among older students—those who started college not at 18, but at ages 20 to 24—fewer than 34 percent of whom graduated, down from more than 38 percent the year before.

The higher-education institutions with the worst graduation rates were four-year private, for-profit colleges and universities, fewer than a third of whose students got degrees.

Seventy-two percent of students at four-year private, nonprofit universities and colleges graduated, and 61 percent at four-year public universities.

Among students who began at community colleges, 38 percent finished within six years—15 percent of them with four-year degrees, presumably having transferred to four-year institutions or earned bachelor’s degrees at the increasing number of community colleges that offer them. That’s down from 16 percent the year before.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Correction: The post originally misstated the types of colleges where graduation rates were lowest.

Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.