Federal Government Publishes More Complete Graduation Rate Data

on October 26, 2017

A guaranteed way to cut the cost of college is to graduate in four years.


Unfortunately, the vast majority of students do not manage to graduate from college in four years. To be enrolled on a full-time basis, students must take 12 credits a semester. To graduate in four years, students must take and pass at least 15 credits a semester.


The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3 percent. The six-year rate is 57.6 percent.


At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8 percent, and 65.4 percent earn a degree in six years. 


The U.S. Department of Education compiles these (depressing) statistics, but despite being official, the graduation-rate figures aren’t as accurate as you might assume. This is because of the way the U.S. Department of Education requires colleges to report degree attainment by students who graduate from their institutions. Previously, graduation rate statistics were limited to just first-time, full-time students, omitting information about part-time and transfer students.


After many years of criticism from pundits in the higher ed world about how grad rates are calculated, the federal government has taken a major step to make the statistics more relevant by including transfer and part-time students. The federal government now provides graduation-rate information for Pell Grant recipients, which has long been a proxy for low-income students. Pell Grant recipients represent about a third of all college students.


To understand why this is a move to applaud, you have to understand how graduation rates have always been assembled.


For decades, the federal government has required institutions to provide statistics on the graduation success of students who start as full-time freshmen. These students, who typically begin college right after graduating from high school, represent 47 percent of college students.


Graduation statistics for students who began college part-time or who transferred from another college have never been collected. In other words, the data collection system ignored the college completion rates of nontraditional students who actually represent the majority of the nation’s college students.


One result of this omission is that the success or failure of public and private colleges and universities in ensuring that nontraditional students obtain degrees has remained unknown to the public and policymakers.


Without a published track record, an institution won’t necessarily feel pressure to improve its degree attainment for all its students. In addition, prospective part-time and transfer students won’t have a resource to consult when looking at whether they could graduate in a timely manner from a particular college.


Misleading Graduation Rates


Although traditional students might not be concerned about what happens to transfer or part-time students, the graduation rate collection system has made the published grad rates misleading for them.


Here is why:  Colleges must report how many of their full-time students, who start as freshmen, end up earning a bachelor’s degree in four years.  Students, however, who transfer are counted as never having graduated from their original college.


Here’s an extreme example:


At Chicago State University, a troubled public university, only 52 percent of full-time students stick around for their sophomore year, which is a stunningly low figure.


That significant drop off in its student body must be baked into the state university’s graduation rate. Forty-eight percent of its freshmen won’t graduate from Chicago State because they left during or after their freshmen year.  Even if all the other undergraduates stuck around and earned a bachelor’s degree, the published grad rate would be low because of all the students who dropped out or transferred.


Chicago State’s four-year grad rate, by the way, is shocking – just 2.5 percent. But, a much greater percentage of the incoming freshmen will ultimately graduate, albeit from another college or university. Moreover, full-time students who transfer to Chicago State also are much more likely to graduate.


Colleges where more students drop out or transfer elsewhere will publish graduation rates that are lower than the actual graduation rates for students who stick it out and earn their degree.


Of course, prospective students need to be concerned about colleges where many students leave.


Outcome Measures


The federal government is publishing statistics for two-year and four-year colleges and universities that show for the first time how many previously ignored transfer and part-time students are progressing towards graduation for a certificate or degree.


Baccalaureate institutions now report the six and eight-year graduation rates of students who were part-time or who transferred in. You also can see how many students still are enrolled at the institution or have enrolled elsewhere.


You can now find these outcome figures by pulling up a college’s profile on College Navigator, a U.S. Department of Education website. Just click on a college’s Outcome Measures link.


Here is an example from California State University, Los Angeles of what you will find.



Looking at national figures, you can see six-year graduation breakdown of colleges:

  • Full-time, first-time students: 59.2%
  • Transfer, full-time students: 58.9%
  • Transfer, part-time students: 37.7%
  • First-time, part-time students: 17.7%

While the statistics look like transfer students graduate at the same rate as students who stay at their original colleges, what is missing is how many academic credits students arrived with when they transferred. The graduation rates for sophomores who persisted at their original colleges are higher than the graduation rates for transfer students.


Pell Grant Statistics


The new statistics also show that Pell Grant students are less likely to graduate than students with higher incomes. According to the new results, 41.2 percent of Pell Grant students graduated within six years while 55.4 percent of students who did not qualify for subsidized federal loans or Pell Grants graduated within that time period.


The additional data can make a difference in evaluating colleges. Michael Itzkowitz, a former director of the federal College Scorecard and current director at Third Way, a centrist think thank, used the University of Maryland University College as an example.


The urban university has a graduation rate of just 10 percent for its full-time, first-time students. That looks terrible, but it also is misleading since 3 percent of its students match that description.


When part-time and transfer students are included, 43 percent of students receive a degree within six years.


Researching Graduation Rates


Here are two online resources to check graduation and retention rates.


1. College Navigator


On College Navigator you can find both the retention rates and graduation rates.


On this site, you will also see six-year grad rates broken down by race and ethnicity, as well as gender. It’s unfortunate that the government doesn’t provide four-year statistics for these categories.


2. College Results Online


This website, which is a creation of the Education Trust, contains graduation rates and retention rates for public and private colleges.


After calling up a college’s profile, you can click the Similar Colleges button and generate a list of peer institutions that are ranked by graduation rates and many other measures.


Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on Amazon.com.

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