Promising News! 2021 Completions Were Up

December 22, 2022

The news about higher education is usually gloomy; it emphasizes enrollment declines, rising costs, tighter budgets, increasing competition, and political headwinds. Despite all the dire headlines, higher education is still a growth industry.

In this series of short blog posts, we will provide highlights from our analysis of industry data sources (e.g., IPEDS and the National Student Clearinghouse) to provide food for thought for higher education leaders and data nerds – like me – as we get ready for a new year.

Just the Facts

Even with the turmoil of the pandemic that upended students and institutions alike, US completions grew 2% year-over-year from 2020 to 2021, totaling 5.4 million completions in 2021 across all award levels. In fact, since 2016, completions have grown a total of 7%. The bad news: this may not be more graduates – it may be more degrees per graduate (e.g., more dual majors).

US completions trend

Undergraduate Programs Dominate, But Graduate Programs Are Growing Faster

Undergraduate programs continue to dominate the higher education landscape, accounting for 78% of all completions in 2021. Bachelor’s completions alone accounted for 40% of completions.

2021 US completions by award level

Completions across all award levels have grown over the past five years. Graduate certificates grew fastest: increasing 43% over the past five years, albeit off a very small base. They still account for only 2% of completions. Master’s completions grew by 10% over the past five years and Doctoral completions grew 9% during this time.

Online Is Gaining Ground

Unsurprisingly, online’s share of total completions grew by one percentage point annually from 2016 to 2021. Still, on-campus programs accounted for the vast majority of higher ed completions in 2021, at 83%.

US completions by modality
Health and Business Are Big

Lastly, let’s look at the disciplines generating the most program completions. Health-related programs are at the top of the list, given the past two years (though our employment data suggests that there will still be too few health graduates to fill the available jobs).

Business programs are a strong number two, with over 800k completions reported in 2021. “Liberal Arts” remains a viable and vibrant CIP code, generating the third-highest number of completions; however, many of these completions are not really in Liberal Arts programs like History; but in Associates programs for general education study prior to transferring to a four-year college.

2021 completions by discipline - all award levels

If we have whetted your appetite for more data, stay tuned for upcoming posts to examine trends by award level and highlight specific programs that are gaining or losing ground.

Elaine Rowles


Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

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Gray Associates, Inc. is a software and services firm focused on higher education. We help education clients develop fact-based institutional and marketing strategies that maximize outcomes for students, the school, and its constituencies.

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