College Graduation Rates: A Love Hate Relationship

Graduation rates can provide important information, but their value can be debatable. Graduation rates are a complex and imperfect measure. I see graduation rate as providing information that is nice to know, but not absolutely necessary in making college attendance decisions. On the other hand, this nice to know information can become somewhat important when a college has a 6-year graduation rates in the low teens.

The following sections discuss how graduation rates are measured and where to go to find the graduation rates for different colleges and universities.

  1. Fall full-time freshman year enrollments. The graduation rates that are available for exploration are provided by the College Navigator. The issue with these rates is that they include only students that entered the institution during the fall semester and enrolled full-time during their freshman year (12 credit hours). In other words, students that entered the institution during the Fall semester as part-time, as well as students entering the institution during the Spring and Summer semesters as either full- or part-time are excluded from the graduation rates calculations. Additionally, transfer students are also excluded.

  1. Include financial aid beneficiaries. Another source for graduation rates is the College Scorecard. These graduation rates include only the students that applied for financial aid. While a large portion of students do apply for financial aid a significant portion of students never do. I know this goes against conventional wisdom and against the ever present stories of student debt, but a significant portion of students do not apply for financial aid, for various reasons. Therefore, these students are excluded from graduation rates calculations as well.
  1. The 4-year, 6-year, and 8–year graduation rates. The federal government measures graduation rates at three points in time: the 100% of the time required to complete a 4-year undergraduate degree (as in on time, hence the 4 –year graduation rate), at 150% of the time – the 6-year graduation rate, and at 200% of the time – the 8–year graduation rate. The 4-year ones are likely to be the lowest rates, the 6-year tend to be way better and then the 8-year ones are the best. And this leads me to the next point:
  1. The 6-year graduation rates are the standard. Colleges that do display their graduation rates default to the 6-year rates, unless otherwise noted. If you see a graduation rate and no specification about it you can be almost certain that it refers to the 6-year rate. The College Scorecard provides the 6-year graduation rates also. Additionally, the books dealing with college selection that do provide the graduation rate (many don’t) provide just a number and then somewhere at the beginning or at the end of the book engulfed in text and maybe in the middle of a paragraph they do note that these rates are six-year graduation rates. To make things even more entertaining these books start at about 500 pages.
  1. So how much time do students actually need to complete a college degree? While the two most common standards are the 4- and 6-year grad rates, the majority of students complete at the 4.5 – 5 years mark, as in not quite in 4 years but in less than 6 years. Obviously, there are students that complete in less than 4 years just as there are students who complete in 6 years or more.
  1. Where to look for graduation rates: College Scorecard, College Navigator, and the college/university’s website. Always keep in mind the standards for graduation rates and that many students get excluded from these calculations.
  2. How much time did you need to complete your degree?

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