How to Make Sense of College Graduation Rates

Graduation rates for college

How to Make Sense of College Graduation Rates

Published April 13, 2021 | Last Updated December 17th, 2023 at 11:42 am

Graduation rates for college

Of the many statistics you are likely to encounter as you help your child choose a school, graduation rates for college are among the most straightforward.

These simple percentages, like any statistic, still require careful interpretation.  

How Do You Calculate Graduation Rates for College?

Put simply, a college’s graduation rate refers to the percentage of its student population—usually, but not always, referring to first-time, full-time students—who graduates in a given time frame.

The time frame is traditionally four years, as this is the normative duration of a bachelor’s degree, but six-year graduation rates are another popular measure.

All colleges that distribute federal student aid are required to report the percentage of their student population who graduates within one and a half times the normative undergraduate degree duration (e.g. six years for a four-year degree).

When checking any resource that tracks college graduation rates, it is wise to consider their methods. The tendency to ignore part-time, returning, transfer, and other non-traditional students means that some of these measures can be misleading.

Thankfully, organizations like the National Center for Education Statistics now take account of these populations. Review both the “Retention and Graduation” and “Outcome Measures” tabs on their College Navigator tool, as the former shows the traditional reliance on first-time, full-time students whereas the latter, newer tab tracks other types of student.

What Is a Good Graduation Rate for a College?

Ultimately, what makes a “good” graduation rate is a subjective consideration, but the national average is a good place to start.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average college graduation rate (six-year) for full-time students enrolling in fall 2014 (which is to say, graduating by 2020) was 64 percent.

You might consider a good graduation rate to be anything in excess of this average. Generally speaking, though, the most prestigious colleges have graduation rates in excess of 90 percent.

The Open Education Database offers Harvard and Yale as examples of this upper echelon, with graduation rates of 98 percent and 97 percent, respectively.

Why Are Graduation Rates so Low? 

As you review the six-year graduation rates on your child’s college list, you may be surprised by the relatively low percentage of the students who reach commencement.

Four-year graduation rates tend to be even lower, which is disturbing, since pushing beyond four years often means taking on additional debt. How can graduation rates be this low?

The simplest explanation is that many students do not prepare themselves to graduate on time, by falling short of academic requirements or failing to enroll in courses offered on a limited basis.

The full picture is a bit more complicated.

The college dropout rate for low-income and nonwhite students is routinely higher than that of students belonging to typically more privileged demographics. Not only is academic performance in college dependent upon material support that marginalized students are less likely to receive in K-12, skyrocketing tuition rates mean that some students will graduate later, or not at all, due to financial hardship.

While it is true that colleges with more selective admission requirements tend to have higher graduation rates, it is also true that these same institutions are more likely to admit affluent students.

Clearly, low graduation rates have as much to do with historical oppression and broader economic forces as they do with individual institutional standards and student discipline.

Are College Graduation Rates Changing Over Time?

On the bright side, college graduation rates have improved steadily in the past decades.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 33.7 percent of freshmen students who began a degree in 1996 finished within four years; those beginning in 2010, by contrast, finished within four years at a rate of 40.6 percent.

There are varying explanations for this increase, but one potential answer is that current students have greater access to tutoring, financial advice, and learning accommodations than their predecessors.   

Comparing University Graduation Rates  

As discussed, graduation rates are simple statistics reflecting a complicated reality.

While high graduation rates may correspond with quality academic programs, and vice versa, these numbers should not be interpreted in isolation of socioeconomic class, race, and other demographic forces.

It is best to consider graduation rates alongside other statistics and your own child’s needs and preferences.

To make this process easier, Road2College has created the R2C Insights tool, which allows families to filter schools based on the qualities they require in a program, their student’s test scores, and various other qualifiers. The R2C Insights tool includes four-year graduation rates alongside many other statistics and measures to help you and your child place this statistic in context and develop nuanced profiles of the schools on their college list.

Try R2C Insights for FREE here: 

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