Episode 63: College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority

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This is our ninth episode focusing on news stories about higher education—some that might immediately change your thoughts about colleges for your teenager and others that might take a bit longer to consider. This episode takes on a topic that we have talked about briefly before, and that is colleges’ graduation rates. This topic is similar to high schools’ and school districts’ graduation rates, though it is not as hotly debated and discussed in public forums, I think. All that might change this year.

College Graduation Rates Are a New Federal Priority on NYCollegeChat podcastIn a recent U.S. News & World Report article (“Education Department to Prioritize College Completion,” January 21, 2016), reporter Lauren Camera quoted President Obama’s Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell as saying this:

‘We continue to be very troubled by the completion numbers. . . . We know we have a completion problem. . . . And we’re going to spend the next 365 days really focusing on completion and figuring out ways we can ensure the most vulnerable students get the high-quality education they deserve.’ (quoted from the article)

That’s a good sentiment. However, I am thinking that all students should get the high-quality education they deserve. While I am sure that the most vulnerable students are at higher risk of not completing a college degree—or, at least, not completing one in a timely manner—I also believe that average students or just-below-average students who managed to start college might be having some trouble finishing, too.

1. Some Statistics

Let’s look at some statistics. According to Ms. Camera’s reporting of statistics from 2013 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only 59 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program completed a bachelor’s degree in six years. Not four years, but six years. That’s first-time, full-time undergraduates in a four-year degree program—in other words, these are the kids just coming out of high school and starting college full time in a bachelor’s degree program. These are kids like your teenager.

The figures broken down by type of institution were 65 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates for private nonprofit institutions, 58 percent for public institutions, and a low, low 32 percent for private for-profit institutions. By the way, these figures do not include part-time students at four-year colleges, which would have made these numbers even lower since part-time students understandably take even longer to complete a degree. These figures also do not represent students in two-year degree programs, including students at community colleges; we would have to look separately at the completion rate for students in two-year degree programs, but that’s a different story.

So, in round numbers, about 60 percent of students who graduate from high school and go to college full time at four-year private and public colleges and universities are graduating with a bachelor’s degree in six years—rather than in the four years that those degrees were designed to be completed in. That is a sad, well-hidden secret.

Of course, these figures are averages, meaning that some colleges have much better graduation rates than these—and some colleges have much worse graduation rates than these.

2. How To Find These Statistics

What does this mean for you? It means that you should pay some attention to the graduation rates of colleges that your teenager is interested in applying to if you believe, as does the Obama administration, that a college’s graduation rate is one more indication of the quality of the institution and of the likelihood that your teenager will actually finish and get a degree once he or she starts. Fortunately, these graduation rates are available online on most college websites (even if you have to dig for them), but they are also available quickly and easily from NCES.

In Episode 58, we talked about looking at enrollment data for various colleges. Graduation data, like enrollment data, are part of what is called the Common Data Set, which is a large set of data covering many aspects of college life, including enrollment, graduation, characteristics of admitted students, and much more. As we explained in Episode 58, the Common Data Set is a product of the government-funded Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (known as IPEDS). I said in Episode 58 that I usually found enrollment data for a particular college by searching on that college’s website for “Common Data Set.” And sometimes that took a while.

I then discovered that IPEDS has a great college search function of its own (housed at NCES), called College Navigator, which provides the Common Data Set statistics for each college quickly and efficiently in one place. So, if you are interested in looking at a college’s graduation rate, just go to the College Navigator website, enter the name of the college you are interested in, click search, click on the college’s name that comes up, and then click on the heading entitled “Retention and Graduation Rates.”

When you do that, you will see three headings of statistics, all of which are well defined. The third heading is “Bachelor’s Degree Graduation Rates,” and it is defined this way: “Bachelor’s degree graduation rates measure the percentage of entering [first-time] students beginning their studies full-time . . . planning to get a bachelor’s degree and who complete their degree program within a specified amount of time.” There are several statistics under this heading: “Graduation Rates for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees,” “6-Year Graduation Rate by Gender for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees,” and “6-Year Graduation Rate by Race/Ethnicity for Students Pursuing Bachelor’s Degrees.” The first chart of graduation rates is broken down into students who started in 2006 and 2008 and also by 4-year, 6-year, and 8-year time-to-graduation time frames.

3. Looking at a Sample of Colleges

Let’s take a look at a sample of 4-year (which is the ideal, of course) and 6-year graduation rates for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees who started as freshmen in 2008. I have chosen these schools at random, except for trying to represent different geographic regions of the U.S. Let’s start with a handful of excellent private universities:


4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Yale University 87% 96%
Rice University 81% 91%
University of Chicago 87% 93%
Stanford University 76% 95%
Washington U. in St. Louis 90% 95%


Now let’s look at a handful of excellent private liberal arts colleges:


4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Amherst College 87% 94%
Barnard College 82% 89%
Carleton College 91% 93%
Colorado College 81% 86%
Kenyon College 89% 89%


Now let’s look at a handful of excellent public flagship universities (these are figures for the main flagship campus only):


4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

University of Virginia 87% 94%
University of Michigan 76% 91%
Pennsylvania State University  




University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  




University of California–Berkeley  





Now let’s look at a handful of private colleges and universities that are not quite so selective:


4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

Quinnipiac University 72% 76%
Denison University 79% 82%
Drake University 66% 74%
Millsaps College 62% 64%
Lewis & Clark College 71% 79%


Now let’s look at a handful of public flagship universities that are not quite so selective:


4-Year Rate

6-Year Rate

University of Rhode Island 39% 59%
University of Alabama 39% 66%
University of Utah 24% 62%
University of Oklahoma 37% 67%
University of Arizona 40% 60%

I hesitate to make too much of my random sample, but I think it is evident that, on the average, less selective public and private colleges and universities have lower 4-year graduation rates and lower 6-year graduation rates. Not every college, of course, because that’s how averages work.

If you want to look at more detailed graduation rates, you can do so by gender or by race/ethnicity. For example, at the University of Alabama, the 6-year graduation rate for black or African-American students is 60 percent; for Hispanic or Latino students, 63 percent; and for white students, 67 percent. I have to say that those numbers are closer together, fortunately, than I thought they would be. And that’s important information to know.

4. Why Should You Be Looking at These Data

So, have we convinced you to take a look at the graduation rates for the colleges your teenager is interested in? The bottom line is that it can’t hurt. We are not saying that you should rule out a college that has a below-average graduation rate—which you now know is about 60 percent for the 6-year time frame. But, if your teenager is trying to decide between two colleges and one has a way higher-than-average graduation rate and one has a way lower-than-average graduation rate, then that should be food for thought. A lower-than-average graduation rate could mean a variety of things—things that would affect your teenager, like it is difficult for students to get into all of the courses they need to graduate because of overcrowding in core classes, and things that might not affect your teenager, like the college might have a mission to take more underprepared high school graduates than the typical college. But whatever the reason, we think that graduation rates are worth knowing.

In conclusion, I looked up a couple of my favorite intriguing colleges, which shall remain nameless (but you might guess some of them if you listened to our virtual tour of colleges nationwide). Their graduation rates were well below average. But the colleges are so unique that I probably won’t let those graduation rates stop me from recommending them. Having information lets you make the best informed judgment you can. And when you are about to commit your teenager’s future to an institution for four—or more—years, making the best judgment you can is priceless.

Listen to the podcast to find out about…

  • How choosing a certain major could hurt your chances of graduating on time
  • How working while in college could hurt your chances of graduating on time
  • How lack of academic support services could hurt your chances of graduating on time

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  • Leaving a comment here on the show notes for this episode
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