While today, few students would ask, “Why is college important?,” many might wonder what factors make a certain school rank higher or lower than others, and which of those factors are important to consider when choosing your school.
When considering what college to attend, one qualification that will always come up is graduation rate. The evaluation of college graduation rates is one of the main indicators in ranking potential colleges and universities in the United States. College graduation rate figures are provided by the College Navigator database offered by the U.S. Department of Education. College Navigator defines graduation rate as the percentage of first-year and full-time, first-time undergraduate students who are able to complete their degree within 150% of the published time for the program. For example, if you’re studying a four-year degree, entering students who complete their degree within six years of their start date are counted as graduates and factored into the graduation rate for that institution.
Graduation rates were first calculated in the mid-1990s, and today are listed on many national rankings. The interpretation appears fairly simple; a high number is good, a low number is bad. However, in many cases issues beyond the quality of the institution can impact graduation rate, so while it’s an important factor to consider, it’s best to review this data alongside other key ranking criteria when considering your choices.
Note: College Navigator did not have graduation rate figures for all of the colleges on our list, but we did not want to penalize those colleges without data. To that end, we simply excluded those schools from the rankings in this category.
Factors Determining College Graduation Rates
Determining college graduation rates is relatively simple – as mentioned above, it’s the percentage of first-time, full-time, first-year undergraduate students who are able to complete their degree within 150% of the published time for the program.
However, the information is by no means a comprehensive representation of a school’s performance or ability to support its students’ performance. There are many factors omitted from the calculation which bear mentioning due to the impact of their absence in the data. Some of these factors include: non-traditional students who take longer than six years to complete their degree, part-time students, transfer students which may have begun their studies at one particular college and finished them at another, as well as any student that has left due to academic standing or financial hardship.
- Non-Traditional Student
Due to the changing landscape of education, non-traditional students make up a large portion of the student population these days – yet the graduation rate does not account for them.
Any students that pursue degrees in a non-traditional timeline will also not be factored into the graduation rate.
Students may take a break within their degree due to many extenuating circumstances, but those will not be factored into the graduation rate data point. As outlined in the introduction, any student that completes their degree beyond 150% of the time allotted for the degree will not be factored into the graduation rate data. Therefore, if for example, an older student returns to college with some existing credits, they will not be factored into the numbers.
Similarly, any students that transfer in or out of the institution are not factored into college graduation rates either. This accounts for approximately one third of all full-time students in the United States according to a 2012 Clearinghouse report. According to a 2015 piece from the Chronicles of Higher Education, the percentage of transfer students remained steady three years later.
There are many reasons that students transfer in and out of schools, from public to private institutions, from universities to community colleges, from two-year to four-year degrees and back, and even across state lines. For example, perhaps they were not initially accepted into the institution based on space or admissions requirements, but ultimately thrived within the institution.
- Part-Time Students
Part-time students also are not accounted for within the graduation rate data. According to the National Center for Education Statistics a 2016 educational summary, an estimated 12.7 million students students were expected to attend an institution part-time, while only 7.9 million students were expected to pursue degrees full-time at institutions nationwide.
- Dropout Cases
Graduation rate also takes into account students who have left their degree due to poor performance or other issues by omitting them from university, college, and community college graduation rates.
- Cost of Education
In some cases, cost of education could also be a factor preventing a student from completing his or her degree within the standard length of time outlined for graduation rate data. If a student requires more than the standard four years to complete his or her degree, he or she may struggle to manage the supplemental cost of each additional year.
Generally, extended enrollment is costly (an estimated additional $8,655 per year (based on 2014 four-year public college rates) just in tuition, so it’s certainly not preferable to take longer than the standard four years. However, if you are one of the 40% of students who require longer, you’ll have to factor in that cost. In some cases, there may come a point when the student must take a break from their education in order to work and save additional funds before they can continue. This could result in the student taking longer than six years to complete his or her degree, and thus he or she would not be included in the graduation rate data.
Bear in mind, omitting non-traditional student data like transfers and part-time students is a slightly flawed reflection of student success through graduation rate because a high portion of those students have completed their degree elsewhere, yet are not factored into any schools’ college graduation rates.
- School-Specific Circumstances That Affect Graduation Rate
There are other circumstances that speak more directly to the school’s quality and ability to support a student in thriving within their degree within the standard time allotted. These might include factors like: class size, faculty performance, school funding, institutional culture and methods, etc.
Benefits of Schools with High Graduation Rates
While high graduation rates are certainly not a comprehensive data point when it comes to choosing a high-performing university or college, there are many benefits to looking at schools with high graduation rates.
Measure of Quality
In considering a variety of data points that demonstrate a school’s ability to rank well, graduation rates can be representative of a school’s measure of quality through factors like having a skilled faculty, substantial funding, a high-performing student body or desirable class size and structure.
Case in point: the Ivy League schools tend to perform very well overall and additionally have very high graduation rates. In a quick sampling, eight top Ivies show a graduation rate above 90%.
- Brown University – 95%
- Columbia University in the City of New York – 93%
- Cornell University – 93%
- Dartmouth College – 95%
- Harvard University – 97%
- Princeton University – 96%
- University of Pennsylvania – 96%
- Yale University – 97%
Many schools with the highest graduation rates are also the colleges with the most selective, elite standards. Universities and colleges that only accept exceptional, high-performing students hold a higher likelihood of seeing a larger percentage of students graduate. In these cases, it’s difficult to separate the quality of the college from the quality and drive of the student.
In fact, some argue that choosing a school with a higher education rate may impact an individual’s desire to finish their degree on time. Jeff Selingo, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests there may be “peer effects” in attending a school with a higher graduation rate. He says “being around other students who want to finish college makes a significant difference.” A high graduation rate may mean an environment in which graduating is highly valued and encouraged by peers and even faculty.
Graduation Rate By State
College graduation rates by state see Delaware leading the pack in public schools with a 73.6% graduation rate over a six-year timeline and 59.3% over a four-year timeline. When it comes to private institutions, the District of Columbia wins out with a 75.6% graduation rate over the six-year timeline and a 66.6% graduation rate over the four-year timeline. However, graduation rate generally should be evaluated on a per-school basis rather than within a particular region.
Measure of Accountability and Effectiveness
As we’ve mentioned, graduation rate cannot be used as a sole indicator of the performance of an institution. However, if graduation rates are low, the data can tell us something about the institution. For example, it may reflect that students are not getting the academic support they need to succeed – or that the school has disappointing or ineffective faculty and staff.
When you have identified an institution of interest with a lower-than-expected graduation rate, it’s worth taking a closer look at the faculty, student support, and funding within the school.
Selecting a college based on graduation rate alone is like buying a car solely based on its safety ratings – it’s only one measure of many. While the graduation rate can provide some insight into the performance of a college, do not let it rule your decision, particularly if you are a non-traditional student.
Educate yourself fully about all universities and colleges you are considering, and examine all factors that go into the ranking, as well as other information, in order to make an informed education about the best choice for your individual education and investment.
For each college, we gathered data for nine different metrics: the number of full-time faculty per part-time faculty member, institutional financial aid, acceptance, retention, graduation, job placement, default rates, years accredited, and undergraduate tuition. Learn more.