Trends in College Graduation Rates

December 05, 2010

ANALYSIS: Graduation Rates Fall at One-Third of 4-Year Colleges

SORTABLE TABLES: Graduation Rates Over Time, by Institution:
Public Research | Private Research | Public Master's | Private Master's | Private Baccalaureate


Changes in Graduation Rates, 2003-8: Some Gains, but Many Colleges Show Declines
We described increases here as a lot if they were five percentage points or more and as a little if they were less than five percentage points.
Institution type Increased a lot Increased a little Decreased Number of institutions
All institutions 30% 35% 35% 1,394
Institutions with below-average graduation rates in 2003 36% 30% 34% 698
Public research 31% 47% 22% 163
Private nonprofit research 22% 49% 29% 96
Public master's 27% 44% 28% 246
Private nonprofit master's 31% 28% 41% 308
Private nonprofit baccalaureate arts and science 29% 35% 36% 230
Regional public institutions* 29% 41% 30% 353
* Members of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. These figures reflect institutions also included in other categories shown.
Note: This analysis considered six-year graduation rates only at four-year, public or private nonprofit institutions classified as research, master's or bachelor's institutions by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2005. Percentages are rounded, and so some percentages do not add up to 100 percent. The number of institutions with exactly no change in rate was negligible.
Source: Chronicle analysis of U.S. Education Department data


About These Data

The Chronicle analyzed changes in graduation rates reported by more than 1,000, four-year public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. We examined only institutions classified as research, master's, or Baccalaureate Colleges—Arts & Sciences by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2005.

These rates are calculated as the percentage of all first-time, full-time students entering in the fall seeking bachelor's degrees who completed bachelor's degrees within six years.

We compared rates for the six years ending in 2008, the most-recent period for which comprehensive data are available, against rates from five years earlier, in 2003. The six-year period ending in 2002 was the first for which all colleges participating in federal-aid programs were required to report the data to the Education Department.

A college's graduation rate sometimes spikes up or down in a particular year. To account for such fluctuations, The Chronicle also averaged the graduation rates for 2002 and 2003 and compared those sums with the averages of the 2007 and 2008 rates. That approach yielded results similar to those shown when only 2003 and 2008 were compared.

Colleges typically describe their graduation rates using a similar but slightly different set of data, which includes students who completed any degree program, such as associate degrees. The Education Department recommends examining only students seeking bachelor's degrees when comparing four-year institutions because it facilitates consistent comparisons and because producing bachelor's recipients is a core mission of those institutions.

The Chronicle's analysis recognizes that a college's graduation rate may rise if its admissions become more selective. Greater selectivity typically brings more academically prepared students, who in turn are more likely to complete degrees within six years. Conversely, graduation rates can slip when institutions become less selective. We labeled institutions that became more or less selective during the period covered by these graduation rates. The source was Barron's Profile of American Colleges, which assigns colleges among seven tiers of selectivity. We recorded whether a college changed tiers from 1996-7 to 2001-2.

Other changes in student demographics could also have increased how each institution's rate changed over time, and this analysis did not further account for those effects.