Every year, students apply to colleges without really knowing if they have a good shot at graduating in four years. In fact, they are so blinded by other more immediate metrics like acceptance rates and an institution’s overall selectivity that they don’t even consider what the likelihood is that once admitted they will graduate within a reasonable amount of time.
In general, graduation rate refers to the time in which a student enters and then completes a degree at 4-year college or university. It’s usually expressed as a percentage, as in X percent of enrolled students complete their degree in four years. A high number is considered good, while a low number is thought of as not-so-good.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Graduation rate actually only tracks full-time, first-time students who start in the fall and eventually graduate—usually in four, five or six years. All transfer students are excluded, whether transferring out to complete at another college or transferring in to complete their degree. The calculation also excludes students who begin college part time, enroll mid-year or students who have stretched their degree timetable by stopping out for work and family obligations.
And although it’s been used as a proxy for quality, a graduation rate is an imperfect measure. Not surprisingly, it also correlates pretty directly with selectivity (see below).
Most students enter college assuming a four-year plan. In fact, it never occurs to them, or their parents that time spent in college could possibly extend beyond four years.
But sometimes life takes over. Students change or add majors, they find themselves retaking classes, or they elect to spend time away from campus for personal reasons or to extend a study abroad opportunity.
And some colleges have built-in co-op programs (paid job experiences) which frequently result in an extra year of undergraduate study.
In other words, there are lots of reasons the four-year plan could easily become a five- or six-year plan.
Still, graduation statistics seldom fail to produce strong reactions from parents.
According to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the percent of students starting as freshmen in four-year bachelor’s programs who graduate within six years has stood at about 59 percent for the past three years.
And the four-year graduation rate currently stands at about 40 percent, with a disturbing divide between public and private institutions—53 percent of all private school students graduate in four years while only 34 percent of students attending public institutions graduate on average in the same period.
Once again, the more selective the school, the higher the likelihood of “on-time” graduation Colleges accepting 25 percent or fewer of their applicants had an 88.6 percent average six-year graduation rate, while those accepting between 75 and 90 percent of all applicants posted a 55 percent average six-year graduation rate.
Locally, a handful of colleges can boast of 4-year graduation rates higher than 80 percent or well above national averages. These include Georgetown University (91%), the U.S. Naval Academy (89%), Johns Hopkins University (88%), the University of Virginia (87%), Washington and Lee (85%), the College of William and Mary (83%), and the University of Richmond (80%).
Thanks to US News, here is a snapshot of the top four-year graduation rates reported by 4-year nonprofit institutions (most recent data available and compiled):
- Carleton College: 91% (prior year: 90%)
- Georgetown University: 91% (88%)
- University of Notre Dame: 91% (90%)
- Colgate University: 90% (87%)
- College of the Holy Cross: 90% (89%)
- Columbia University: 90% (88%)
- Davidson College: 90% (90%)
- Harvey Mudd College: 90% (86%)
- Pomona College: 90% (93%)
- Princeton University: 90% (88%)
- Washington University in St. Louis: 90% (88%)
- Kenyon College: 89% (86%)
- Middlebury College: 89% (87%)
- Swarthmore College: 89% (89%)
- U.S. Naval Academy: 89% (88%)
- Boston College: 88% (89%)
- Dartmouth College: 88% (87%)
- Haverford College: 88% (91%)
- Johns Hopkins University: 88% (88%)
- Lafayette College: 88% (85%)
- Tufts University: 88% (87%)
- Vanderbilt University: 88% (87%)
- Vassar College: 88% (90%)
- Williams College: 88% (90%)
Beyond using the US News data, the best places to find more current 4-year graduation rates is through College Navigator or by doing some minor computations using posted Common Data Set information (divide question B7 by question B6).
And never hesitate to ask a college with low(ish) graduation rates for an explanation (sometimes it involves specific programs or majors) and what they are doing to improve if improvement seems necessary.