If college graduation rates were high school graduation rates, every politician, pundit, and policy wonk would be in the mainstream media talking about the crisis of college dropouts and devising ways to tie faculty evaluation to student graduation. Not that such an approach is necessarily the answer. After all, given the situation with high school graduation rates, I’m not sure that we would actually come up with any solutions but, boy, we sure would be talking about it.
Some Official Numbers
Let’s start with official numbers. According the Digest of Education Statistics, the four-year college graduation rate was 39.4% (based on students who started in 2007). The rate drops to 33.5% for public institutions and increases to 52.8% for private institutions. I generally don’t include for profit schools in any of my data analysis but in case you’re wondering, their graduation was 22.5%.
These should be jaw dropping numbers. But they aren’t because we’re so good at explaining them away.
But It’s Not The College’s Fault
Not that there aren’t legitimate explanations. Start with the obvious–public universities are cheaper and often more accessible than private colleges. Therefore, they have a higher percentage of low-income, under-represented minorities, first generation college students, and part-time students. Given the challenges that many of these students face, they are going to have lower graduation rates. If you don’t believe me, look it up.
Furthermore, some public universities can control enrollment through specific academic qualifications where many more have much more lax standards for admissions.
So these are the foundation for all the explanation you’ll hear about why the college graduation rates are so low. Now just for fun, go ask some public school teachers how much slack that cuts them in their job performance.
Comparing College Graduation Rates
Back to COLLEGE graduation rates, you know, the places where tuition is hitting $60,000 a year and the government gives students loans and grants to attend?
Basically, it isn’t easy to compare apples to apples when looking at college graduation rates. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) has a higher graduation rate, 52%, than the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), 11%, which is doing a better job?
A total of 45% of freshman at UTSA are receiving Pell Grants compared to 25% at UT. At UTSA, 41% of undergraduates are Hispanic and 22% are part-time. Only 22% of UT freshman are Hispanic and 8% are part-time. UT accepts 40% of applicants, UTSA 76%. Definitely not an apple to apple situation.
However, once you start comparing UTSA to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), you come closer to comparing apples to apples and can start asking why the schools have different graduation rates.
Why Do They Charge So Much If There’s Nothing They Can Do About it?
Ultimately, given the importance and cost of a higher education, it isn’t acceptable to simply explain things away. Less than one-third of full-time undergraduates are attending four-year colleges that have at least a four-year graduation rate of 50% or better.
Oh, but that number jumps to 66.7% for six years. That means that after six years, two-thirds of students will have received a four-year Bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. As families are sitting down with their high school seniors planning and budgeting for college, I don’t think they’re doing it with the intent to finish in six years.
There are 11 states where less than half of students attend four-year colleges with a 50% or higher six-year graduation rate.
There are only 8 states where more than half of college students are at schools with 50% or higher four-year graduation rate.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that the high school seniors and their families can do about the situation. Yet, if college is the pursuit of knowledge, then start by looking at graduation rates. If it’s all about the job at the end, then figure out what your chances are of getting to the end. After all, the most expensive college is the one you don’t graduate from.
The following tables shows the percentage of students attending four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates with graduation rates of 50% or better by state as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System in January 2016.
Take the numbers as approximates since I dropped 16 schools that had 0 listed as their graduation rates. This included over 14,000 students at Northeastern in Massachusetts and almost 10,000 at South Texas College. This means that smaller states could be negatively affected because of missing information for a large college. So if something looks wrong, it could be.
Percentage of Full-time College Students Attending
Institutions with a 50% or Better Graduation Rate