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By Elizabeth LaScala

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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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Congratulations on Getting In! Now How Long to Get Out?

Uploaded: Apr 27, 2014
This time of year many high school seniors have made or are about to make the final selection of where to go to college. I am reminded of a statement made by F. John Case in 2010, when he was the vice president for finance and administration at the University of Akron. "Getting them through the door is great, but you have to help them once they're there."

He was commenting on challenges faced nation-wide by colleges who not only need to recruit high school students to fill their freshman classes, but also retain and guide them to graduation. In 2012, The Chronicle of Higher Education did an analysis of nearly 1,400 4-year institutions which showed that one-third reported lower six year graduation rates than in the prior interval. And for those institutions reporting higher rates, the growth was slow at best.

To give some point of reference, in the U.S. the 2011 graduation rate for full-time, first-time undergraduate students who began their pursuit of a bachelor's degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2005 was 59 percent. That is, 59 percent of full-time, first-time students who began seeking a bachelor's degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2005 completed the degree at that institution within 6 years. Six years is the interval used by NCES, the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Not surprisingly, differences in 6-year graduation rates for full-time, first-time students vary according to institutions' level of selectivity. In particular, graduation rates are highest at postsecondary degree-granting institutions that are the most selective (i.e., have the lowest admit rates). For example, NCES found that at 4-year institutions with open admissions policies, only 31 percent of students completed a bachelor's degree within 6 years. At 4-year institutions where the acceptance rate was less than 25 percent of applicants, the 6-year graduation rate was 88 percent.

The Chronicle of Education hosts a website where you can browse the data and learn more about who graduates from college, who doesn't and some of the reasons behind the statistics. These data are in the aggregate, but they are broken down by college, or state, well as by 4 year and 2 year institutions. As you review the stats, bear in mind that the 4-year graduation rate suffers many methodological shortcomings. It fails to count students who may take more time to finish their degree, but do ultimately finish, including those who find a different passion and change majors, thus taking longer to meet graduation requirements. It fails to account for students who transfer to colleges that better fit their needs, and those who drop out to join the workforce and apply what they learned in college successfully, even though they did not earn the actual degree. And it does not include students who choose to enter a 5th year at the same college to earn an advanced degree.

Still, the graduation rate is the primary, publicly accessible metric that families can and should use to assess how well a college serves its students. Colleges committed to retaining and raising graduation rates are working hard to find ways to guide and direct students through their education and into the workforce or onto graduate or professional education. The 4-year and 6-year graduation rates are two of many important quality indicators that families should closely examine when researching college options. And directly asking a college what accounts for a lower than optimal graduation rate and how it is working to improve it are among the many important questions to ask.

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