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College Graduation Rates: How Many People Graduate College?

By Melissa Brock · June 22, 2022 · 7 minute read

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College Graduation Rates: How Many People Graduate College?

It may seem to you that droves of college students collect diplomas every year, but how many students actually start college and graduate — at the same college?

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported in 2019 that the overall six-year graduation rate for bachelor’s degree-seeking full-time undergraduate students at four-year degree-granting institutions in fall 2013 was 63%.

Graduation rates refer to the percentage of a school’s students who complete their program within 150% of the published time for the program. It’s important not to confuse graduation rates with retention rates, which refer to the percentage of students who continue at a particular school the next year. In other words, the retention rate is the percentage of students who finish their first year and return for a second year.

We’ll walk through what the college graduation rate can tell you about a school, why it’s important, as well as outline a good graduation rate. We’ll also break down graduation rates by state and colleges (from lowest to highest), discuss some reasons that students might not graduate, and how to overcome some of these obstacles.

What Does the College Graduation Rate Tell Us?

As a prospective student, understanding the difference between graduation rates and retention rates, you are better prepared to compare these percentages against the schools on your list. Comparing the graduation rate of your first-choice college gives a definite indication of whether the schools fall above or below the average. It’s a quick way to find out how many students finish their degrees “on time” and also tells you the type of institutions that deliver the highest graduation rates. Based on available statistics, private, nonprofit institutions graduate students at a higher rate.

Why Is Knowing the Graduation Rate Important When Selecting a College?

When you’re researching colleges, many different things matter to different students. Athletes may want to know more about their individual athletic programs. English majors may want to know how many professors are published writers.

However, among all the different factors you can research, graduation rate remains one of the most important for all prospective students to understand.

Why? The graduation rate serves as a gauge for many things — student satisfaction and happiness in addition to indicating how many students graduate in a timely manner. However, it’s not the only metric you want to consider when you choose a college. Other priority considerations include teacher-to-student ratio, retention rate, loan default rates, and selectivity.

Two trusted websites compile information on graduation rates: College Navigator and College Results Online.

•  College Navigator : College Navigator compiles information from about 7,000 colleges and universities in the United States. College Navigator breaks down both retention rates and graduation rates on its site, and you can also access these rates by race/ethnicity and gender.

•  College Results Online : College Results Online also lists both rates and retention rates for institutions. You can also cross-index certain peer institutions against each other to compare graduation and retention rates.

What Is a Good Graduation Rate for a College?

The best graduation rates in the U.S. are from schools that have a graduation rate in the 90th percentile, which many of the Ivy League schools have. For example, let’s take a look at a few six-year graduation rates based on College Navigator data:

•  Harvard University: 98%

•  Yale University: 96%

•  Cornell University: 95%

However, you can still find high graduation rates within highly selective liberal arts colleges:

•  Amherst College: 95%

•  Davidson College: 93%

•  Claremont McKenna College: 92%

It’s important to remember that since these highly selective schools only admit students with top-tier credentials, they naturally attract some of the most driven students on the planet, resulting in a high graduation rate.

So, what is a good graduation rate for a college? Does this mean that a college in the 80th or even 70th percentile isn’t a good school or that it isn’t the right school for you? Absolutely not. As mentioned before, other factors play into the mix as well, based on your personal preferences and interests. The right fit for you may be a school with a 70% graduation rate. The better the fit, the more likely you will graduate on time.

Lowest Graduation Rate College in the United States

Unfortunately, the college with the lowest graduation rate in the U.S. isn’t a highly popularized statistic. However, if, during your own research, you see a school that graduates at or below 60%, you may want to probe your admissions counselor at the college for the reasons why rates are so low and find out more about how the college plans to improve.

Average College Graduation Rate in the United States

When digging a bit more into the 2019 NCES report, it states that the average college graduation rate (more specifically, the six-year graduation rate) was:

•  62% at public institutions

•  68% at private nonprofit institutions

•  26% at private for-profit institutions

Overall, 60% of males and 66% of females graduate within six years, and females had a higher six-year graduation rate at the following types of institutions:

•  Public institutions (65% female vs. 59% male)

•  Private nonprofit institutions (71% female vs. 64% male)

However, at private for-profit institutions, males had a higher six-year graduation rate than females (28% vs. 25%).

How does the U.S. Department of Education arrive at this data? The NCES uses Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a system of interrelated surveys conducted annually by NCES through institutions.

The IPEDS graduation rate is calculated like this:

Graduation Rate =
Number of students who completed their program within a specific percentage of normal time to completion / Number of students in the entering cohort

College Graduation Rates by State

Here are the college graduation rates by state, according to World Population Review :

State

College Completion (or Higher)

Massachusetts 44%
Colorado 41%
New Jersey 40%
Maryland 40%
Virginia 39%
Connecticut 39%
Vermont 38%
New York 37%
New Hampshire 37%
Washington 36%
Minnesota 36%
Illinois 35%
Utah 34%
Rhode Island 34%
Oregon 34%
California 34%
Kansas 33%
Hawaii 33%
Nebraska 32%
Montana 32%
Maine 32%
Delaware 32%
Pennsylvania 31%
North Carolina 31%
Georgia 31%
Wisconsin 30%
Texas 30%
North Dakota 30%
Florida 30%
Arizona 30%
Alaska 30%
South Dakota 29%
Missouri 29%
Michigan 29%
Iowa 29%
South Carolina 28%
Ohio 28%
Idaho 28%
Wyoming 27%
Tennessee 27%
New Mexico 27%
Indiana 27%
Oklahoma 26%
Alabama 26%
Nevada 25%
Louisiana 24%
Kentucky 24%
Arkansas 23%
Mississippi 22%
West Virginia 21%

Number of College Graduates in the 21st Century

In the past 20 or so years, the number of college graduates has increased. According to information published by Education Data , in 2001 approximately 1.24 million students graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree. In 2018, that number reached 1.98 million.

Reasons Why College Students Don’t Graduate

When looking at graduation rates, let’s turn the tables a bit and take a look at a few reasons why students might not graduate. Depending on the student, these could include things like the high cost of tuition, trying to balance work and school, or poor academic performance.

Cost

The increasing price tags aren’t a new reason that students leave school. When it gets too expensive, they may feel they have no way out. According to the National Association of School and Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) , an analysis of 2,000 colleges and 10 theoretical students found that 48% of families with annual incomes above $160,000 could afford the colleges on the list. Those with a family income over $100,000 could afford more than one-third of the colleges. Finally, the theoretical students from lower-income backgrounds could only afford up to 5% percent of the colleges.

Recommended: What is the Average Cost of College Tuition? 

Balancing Work and School

Many undergraduates work part-time jobs to help pay their way through college. Students often get stuck in the quagmire of trying to keep up with both work and school, which can be a challenging balancing act. Many seasonal jobs for college students exist, which means you might be able to get a job during the summer instead of working during the school year.

Transferring

Transferring colleges sometimes means some credits get lost in translation. When transfer students are forced to retake classes, it not only costs more financially, but they also have to spend extra time pursuing their degree. This sometimes means that students often face trouble getting enough credits to graduate.

Poor Grades

Sometimes, students simply can’t make the grades. Even if it happens during just one semester, it can cause students to shy away from college altogether. In particular, first-generation college students, those who are low-income students, as well as minority students, are vulnerable and question whether they really belong in college.

Being Denied a Student Loan

Being denied a student loan or other types of financial aid can be a huge deterrent to continuing on in college. However, remember that there are ways around it — including seeking a loan through a different lender.

Recommended: I Didn’t Get Enough Financial Aid: Now What?

Overcoming the Obstacles as a College Student

What can you do to overcome the obstacles and successfully graduate from college? Let’s find out. We’ll list a few things you can do to help you stay the course:

•  Get organized with everything — school work, athletics, homework, and more.

•  Get support from family and friends.

•  Create healthy habits. Eat nutrient-dense meals, get enough sleep, and stay healthy.

•  Carefully consider the best ways to pay for college and focus on managing your money.

•  Get to know professors and academic support professionals at your college or university.

•  Work on your time management skills so you have the time you need for important assignments.

•  Take care of your mental health. If you are struggling to balance the many priorities of being a college student, reach out to family or friends for help. If you need additional support, contact your campus’ health and wellness center to see what counseling resources are available to students.

•  Investigate transfer options early on if you attend a community college so you know how to make the transition smoother.

Recommended: FAFSA Guide

Ways to Fund College

Making sure you have a concrete plan to pay for college is one of the best ways to make sure you successfully graduate. Let’s walk through a few tips for making sure you have all your ducks in a row.

•  Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
This is the first step in applying for federal financial aid, including grants, scholarships, and low-interest-rate federal student loan options.

•  Search for scholarships. Ask the college or university you plan to attend about scholarships they offer. Don’t forget to search around in your community as well.

•  Get a work-study job. If you qualify for work-study this can be an opportunity to earn a bit of money for college expenses. This is a federal program in which you earn money and your school pays you for that work via a check, usually every week, every two weeks, or every month.

•  Look into private loans. If you need to fill the gap between scholarships, grants, and federal student loans, look into private loans to help you make it across the graduation stage. These may lack the borrower protections afforded to federal student loans (like deferment options or income-driven repayment plans) and are therefore generally only considered after other financing sources have been exhausted.

Recommended: The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans

The Takeaway

A school’s graduation rate is a reflection of the percentage of students that graduate within 150% of the published time frame. This is different from a school’s retention rate which is a measurement of how many students remain at a school from year to year. A school’s graduation rate can be an informative benchmark as you evaluate and compare schools during the application process.

If you are a current college student, you can do a lot to make sure you stay the course, including taking care of yourself, using scholarships and grants to your advantage, getting academic help, and making sure (if needed) that you have the right private loans to make it all happen.

Ready to find private student loans to make sure you get to throw your cap at graduation? Visit SoFi and learn more about private student loans and the low rates we have to offer. Our friendly experts can also help you decide your best course of action.


Photo credit: iStock/digitalskillet

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