What is this measure, and why is this measure important?
This measure provides a more complete picture of the educational progress of American college students. The majority of data in this indicator reflect the proportion of first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students who graduate within 150 percent of normal program length (i.e., six years). In addition, eight-year graduation rates (200 percent of normal program length) are available for the first time and are included in this indicator. Graduation rates are calculated by aggregating, across institutions in a given state and/or sector, the institution-level adjusted entering cohorts and the number of students from these cohorts who graduate within the appropriate time frame. Estimates therefore can be interpreted as a percentage of students in the given sector and/or state.
Traditional graduation rates reflect persistence and degree attainment within the institution in which one originally enrolls. One criticism of this approach is that this does not account for transfer students who go on to earn a degree from an institution other than the one first attended. Recent data from the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) longitudinal study are included in this indicator in order to address this limitation.
The data are disaggregated by state, race/ethnicity and source of institutional control (i.e., public, private not-for-profit, private for-profit) to help states understand the differential outcomes across groups and to illustrate how the state’s overall graduation rate is a function of the varying performance of these students in different types of institutions.
What are the policy issues associated with this measure?
National and state policymakers are highly attuned to the graduation rate discussion. Individuals, as well as states, invest money in higher education with the expectation of degree completion — a credential that can improve the economic well-being of both the student and the state as a whole. The consequences of failing to complete a degree are of great concern, especially when one considers the growth in average student loan debt and student loan default rates in recent years (see Recommendation Seven for more details).
Graduation rates have been a part of the higher education landscape since Congress passed the Student Right-to-Know Act in 1990. They are the primary national, standardized measure of postsecondary outcomes. However, policymakers should consider the significance and meaning of high or low graduation rates. The appropriate context should be taken into account when considering whether persistence indicators such as graduation rates can or should be used as accountability measures. Institutions vary in their mission as well as the composition of entering students, factors which should be recognized when interpreting estimates, particularly at the institution level. Institutions that aim to educate low-income, first-generation, traditionally underserved students will face substantially different enrollment, retention and graduation challenges compared to institutions that attract most of their students from the top of the nation’s high school graduating classes. Policymakers should seek to understand the benefits and limitations of graduation rates in order to better serve all constituents.
As discussed in the previous indicator, substantial persistent gaps exist between the graduation rates of Asian and white students and the graduation rates of students in other racial/ethnic groups. There is a tremendous amount of research being done to understand the factors that contribute to these differential outcomes. A complete discussion of this research is beyond the scope of this publication.
Where are we now?
As of 2010, 58.8 percent of first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students in the nation’s four-year colleges graduate within six years (Figure 9.3a); this is an increase from a low of 55.5 percent in 2002. Graduation rates vary by sector such that 56.3 percent of bachelor’s degree-seeking students in public four-year colleges graduate within six years, compared to 66.1 percent at private not-for-profit four-year colleges. Public institutions account for just under two-thirds of first-time, full-time students at four-year colleges. Private not-for-profit institutions constitute approximately one-third of enrollment.
As of 2010, 34.7 percent of first-time, full-time bachelor’s degree-seeking students at four-year historically black colleges or universities graduate in six years or less (Figure 9.3d). At Hispanic institutions 44.3 percent of these students graduate in six years or less.
Six-year graduation rates of first-time, full-time students at four-year colleges vary by race/ethnicity and sector (Figure 9.3b; Figures 9.3f–9.3m). Asian American students at four-year colleges have the highest six-year graduation rate (68.9 percent), followed by white students (62 percent), Hispanic students (50.6 percent), American Indian students (40.3 percent) and African American students (40.1 percent). When disaggregated by state, the six-year graduation rate at four-year colleges ranges from 31 percent in Alaska to 78.7 percent in the District of Columbia (Figure 9.3e).
When six-year graduation rates are compared against eight-year graduation rates, it is clear that the additional time affords a number of students the opportunity to complete their degrees. For example, while 58.8 percent of first-time, full-time degree-seeking students who entered in fall 2002 earn a bachelor’s degree in six years (Figure 9.3a), 60.3 percent of this same cohort graduate within eight years (Figure 9.3o). When disaggregated by state, the eight-year graduation rate ranges from 30 percent in Alaska to 74 percent in the District of Columbia (Figure 9.3o).
Four-year graduation rates of bachelor’s degree-seeking students at four-year colleges have slightly increased from 2008 to 2010; in 2008, 35.9 percent of students graduated in four years compared to 36.7 percent of these students in 2010. There was an increase in four-year graduation rates over this time period for public and private not-for-profit schools. When disaggregated by state, the four-year graduation rate ranges from 8.3 percent in Alaska to 64.2 percent in South Dakota (Figure 9.3t).
When interpreting this measure, what should be kept in mind?
The limitations of these graduation rates deserve consideration. For example, as was the case with the previous indicator, graduation rates are based solely on degree completion within the institution in which one enrolls as a full-time, first-time student. In addition, they do not reflect part-time students, students who begin college in terms other than the fall term, or incoming transfer students who go on to successfully complete a degree. In fact, successful transfer students count against the original institution’s graduation rate (which also influences estimates at the state level) and do nothing to benefit the receiving institution. Many policymakers and researchers have called for reforms to standardize the way that transfer rates are measured and reported by states and institutions. Because of the lack of the standardization of transfer rates, these data are not yet available to help contextualize the nation’s success in increasing completion rates.
It is also important to consider that graduation rates are associated with many other factors not directly addressed in these data (e.g., first-generation status academic preparation, socioeconomic background, adjustment to college, etc.). In addition, many students take longer than the traditional four- to six-year window to graduate, including students who begin as full-time students but spend most of their undergraduate experience attending part time and students who work while attending college. The inclusion of BPS estimates and eight-year graduation rates in this report is meant to address some of these limitations and provide a more complete picture of degree completion.
Recent changes in the rules regarding maintenance, collection, and reporting of federal data on race and ethnicity should be considered when interpreting data in this indicator. Institutions must now collect these data using a two-question format in which the first assesses whether the individual is Hispanic/Latino (ethnicity) and the second evaluates whether the respondent is one or more of the following races: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or white. In addition, Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander were separated into two categories and a reporting category “two or more races” was introduced.
In the most recent graduation survey, institutions had the option to report under old or new race/ethnicity categories. IPEDS then derived a total, where the new category overlapped with the old. The data contained in this indicator reflect these derived categories. It is possible that the addition of “two or more races” in the new system changes how institutions report students, which raises questions about the ability to compare estimates from the 2008 survey to those from previous or future years (when institutions will have fully transitioned to the new system).
Finally, some estimates are based on a very small number of students, particularly when disaggregated by state by sector by ethnicity. Readers are advised to consider the number of institutions behind various estimates as well as the number of students that underlie these estimates. In some cases, institutional responses are altered by NCES to protect the privacy of students. Thus, the publicly available survey data may not reflect the exact value reported by institutions. The impact of this likely varies across figures within this indicator. For example, there is likely a greater impact on American Indian or Alaska Native estimates than there is for white students, since a greater number of institutional responses regarding American Indian or Alaska Natives may have been altered by NCES. Similarly, estimates based on the cumulative responses of many small colleges may be impacted more than those based on the cumulative responses of larger colleges.