Without better data, it’s difficult to find a definitive answer to this question. We do know that 59 percent of full-time, first-time students at four-year institutions completed a bachelor’s or equivalent degree within six years, and that 32 percent of full-time, first-time students at two-year institutions completed a credential within three years.
While some research suggests that just over half of students complete a certificate or college degree within six years, it’s difficult to get a true picture of national graduation rate data. Because of a federal ban on collecting comprehensive student-level data and a decades-old graduation rate definition established by Congress, the Department of Education collects data on graduation rates only for first-time, full-time students. The growing ranks of part-time students and transfer students are therefore not included in the national graduation rates that colleges and universities report, nor are students who transfer from a two-year institution to a four-year college to complete their degrees.
The Department of Education’s graduation rate definition measures the share of those first-time, full-time students who graduate within 150 percent of the expected time to completion—averaging nearly 60 percent within six years for students enrolled in four-year colleges, and nearly one-third within three years for students enrolled at two-year institutions. Those data reveal that graduation rates also vary significantly across institutions, suggesting academic supports for students or educational quality are not the same at all schools. Given how important college completion is to ultimate post-college success—adults with degrees have lower rates of unemployment and higher wages than those with only a high school diploma, and borrowers who drop out before earning a degree are three times more likely to default on their loans—accurate measures of graduation are especially critical for students to understand.
Credit: Clare McCann