April 15, 2012

Closer Look at College Graduation Rates

Recently a commenter in a FMF article said that most students who enter college at age 18 do not graduate in four years.   This is in fact true.   However I remembered over 2 years ago I talked about reading an article in the WSJ that said that only 60% of students graduate in 6 years and they cited the Dept. of Education.     The difference is that while many students don't graduate in 4 years they do manage to graduate a little later in 5 or 6 years.  

I decided to look up the actual data at the Dept. of Ed. fast facts QA item on college degree completion.

They say : "Approximately 57 percent of first-time students who sought a bachelor's degree or its equivalent and enrolled at a 4-year institution full time in fall 2002 completed a bachelor's degree or its equivalent at that institution within 6 years."    Thats the 6 year rate.

If you look at their Table 341 data they break down rates for 4, 5 and 6 year periods.

So for 4, 5 and 6 years the percent of students who finish a bachelors is :

4 years 36.4%
5 years 52.3%
6 years 57.3%

Thats for all students across four year institutions.   What happens to the rest of the students?  Some drop out, some are still working on degrees and some decide to stop after getting an associates degree.

THe Dept. of Ed. info also breaks up degree completion percent numbers by a variety of student and institution characteristics in the Table 343  That table gives more specifics on the status of students at the 6 year point.

First of all, here's the whole picture status for 4 year college students :

Note that the 'other degree' group is for 2.7% of students who got a certificate and 4% who settled for an Associates which may or may not have been their original goal.

Degree completion varies by a lot of factors.


Men  60.6%
women  68.7%

Age when first enrolled

18 or younger  70.0%
19 57.1%
20 to 23  37.7%
24-29  34.4%
30 or over  26.1%

Parent education

High school diploma or less  52.0%
Some college 59.5%
Bachelors 72.1%
Advanced degree 76.5%

Student status

Dependent 68.0%
independent 35.9%

Family income '94

under $25k 58.8%
$25k-$45k 61.7%
$45k-70k 69.1%
over $70k 77.4%

Class load :

full time 69.3%
part time 33.4%

Now you might rightly think that part time students would take longer to graduate so therefore they aren't going to complete as fast.  But.. lets look at the drop out rates :

always part time 76.8%
mixed 21.7%
always full 17.8%

Work status

did not work 71.1%
worked pt 65.0%
worked ft 41.7%

I'm going to take a guess that there is large correlation between the students that work full time and the students who attend school part time.   Those two groups have higher drop out rates.  I'd also then guess that the bigger reason they drop out more is that they are working full time and taking college part time and that amount of work is challenging to sustain long term.  Of course this is really just speculation on my part but I think its likely.

Nature of institution

public 60.5%
private, non profit 73.6%
private, profit 52.8%


white 68.1%
black 51.3%
Hispanic 53.9%
Asian 71.3%
American Indian 55.4%

General comments : 

The numbers given above are all for 4 year colleges and all look at the students as of 6 years after they start college.   They don't track the students after 6 years so its possible more of then graduated after 7 or 8 years or more.

Most of the things listed above are not something you can change.   But there are a few things you do have direct control over.    It appears that if you start college right out of high school at age 18, if you do not work during college, if you take full time class course load and if you attend a private non-profit college that these may all contribute to higher graduation rates.    However theres no indication of causality here.  So we don't know if these things really help you graduate faster or if its just coincidence.  I mean its possible that the only thing that really matters is how educated your parents are.   Then it might follow that the other factors correlate to educated parents.  More educated parents would have more money and more likely to allow a student to afford a full time private school without working.   

It seems to make sense to me that working could cause lower graduation rates.   Working and going to school is harder than just taking classes so it should be easier to graduate if you don't have to work or if you work less. 

I'm a little surprised that older students have lower graduation rates.  I would have thought it might be different.  It seems to me that slightly older students would be a bit more serious about school.   But we don't know why those students delayed school or why they didn't graduate on time.   Maybe the older students are more likely to be working full time, struggling to pay college tuition and have kids to feed.   That doesn't mean they're "less serious" about school, but they could have contributing factors that make it much harder to graduate compared to an 18 year old

For two year institutions the numbers vary.  Here is the general break down for students that start at a 2 year college :
Table 343 also breaks down the percentages for 2 year schools based on different characteristics.  

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