Apr 17, 2010

‘Graduation Rates’ Should Be Key Factors in College Selection

One of the scariest numbers in postsecondary education is the national “six-year” college graduation rate. Every college and university in the country tracks it, and every school must submit their number for analysis by the federal government. Sadly, the percent of students starting as freshmen in four-year bachelor’s programs who graduate within six years now rests at about at 58 percent.

You might be wondering what the four-year graduation rate must be if only 58 percent of students graduate in six years. Trust me, it’s far worse. And the divide between public and private institutions is really disturbing—50 percent of all private school students graduate in four years while only 29 percent of students attending public institutions graduate in the same period.

Lots of perfectly legitimate reasons can account for taking so long to graduate. Sometimes students want to take advantage of pre-arranged co-operative learning opportunities. Sometimes time spent studying abroad factors in. And often, the delay comes about as a result of a change in major.

Regardless of the reason behind the delay, one thing is for sure. Those extra years are costly, and the ultimate failure to graduate can be devastating.

As is true in nearly every measure of college performance, institutions vary wildly in their graduation rates. Luckily, there is a wonderful website maintained by the Education Trust, College Results Online, that provides college four-, five- and six-year graduation rates.

At College Results Online, you can plug in the name of any school and get immediate feedback on what percent of undergrads manage to graduate within 4, 5, or 6-year timeframes. You can also ask the software to compare any school’s track record with its peers. You don’t even have to know who the peers are—the software will generate a list.

For example, a student considering George Washington University, will see that it posts a four-year graduation rate of 72.6 percent, a five-year graduation rate of 76.8 percent, and a six-year graduation rate of 78.1 percent. Six-year graduation rates among colleges labeled “similar” include:

University of Notre Dame: 95.5%
Georgetown University: 93.4%
University of Virginia: 93.2%
College of William and Mary: 91.5%
Boston College: 91.2%
Villanova University: 87.5%
UNC—Chapel Hill: 82.6%
Boston College: 81.6%
Syracuse University: 81.5%
University of Miami: 76.3%
Tulane University: 76.3%
American University: 73.0%
SMU: 71.1%
Northeastern University: 66.4%

Colleges will complain that graduation rates penalize for transfers “out” but don’t give credit for transfers “in.” This is true. But for my money—and yours, it’s a valid source of comparison among institutions and certainly worth investigating when evaluating different schools.

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