NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 25, 2009

In the fall of 2001, nearly 1.2 million freshmen began college at a four-year institution of higher education somewhere in the United States.  Nearly all of them expected to earn a bachelor's degree.  However, less than 60 percent of new students graduate from four-year colleges within six years, say researchers at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Using official U.S. Department of Education graduation rates, researchers identified the top and bottom performers among institutions that have similar levels of admission selectivity:

  • Though completion rates increase as one moves up the selectivity scale, they show that within each category of selectivity, there are large differences between schools that graduate most students and those graduate few.
  • While student motivation, intent and ability matter greatly when it comes to college completion, this study suggests that the practices of higher education institutions also matter.
  • America's college graduation rate crisis is not just happening at the handful of institutions that admit only a few of their applicants and graduate most, it's happening at a large swath of institutions that admit many but graduate few.

Yet, high graduations are not a good sign, nor are low graduations rates a bad one; after all, an easy way to pad graduation rates is to drop standards and hand a diploma to every student who walks through the door.

However, graduation rates as calculated for this study do convey important information. Information that should be readily available to students selecting a school, parents investing in their child's education and policymakers and taxpayers who finance student aid and public institutions, say researchers.

Furthermore, these measures should be just the beginning of a deeper inquiry into college success -- one driven by more accurate measures like future earnings, acquiring knowledge and workplace success, conclude the researchers.

Source: Frederick M. Hess et al., "Diplomas and Dropouts," American Enterprise Institute, June 3, 2009.

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