Getting to graduation

Thousands of Americans won’t be graduating from college in the next few weeks. Nearly half of full-time freshmen fail to earn a degree within six years, concludes an Education Trust report, “A Matter of Degrees.” Graduation rates are especially poor for low-income and minority students.

These young people leave our higher education system burdened with large student loans that must be repaid, but without the benefit of the wages that a college degree provides. 

College enrollment has increased dramatically in a generation, with the biggest gains coming from female and low-income students.  In the first eight years out of high school, 80 percent of on-time high school graduates enroll in a two-year or four-year college. However, many students don’t make it very far.

When looking at six-year graduation rates for four-year colleges and universities, the data shows that barely six out of ten (63%) first-time full-time degree-seeking college freshmen graduate within six years.  While the overall graduation rates are low for all students, they are particularly low for minority and low-income students: only 46% of African American, 47% of Latino, and 54% of low-income first-time full-time freshmen are graduating within six years. 

Six-year graduation rates range from less than 10 percent to almost 100 percent. Some colleges and universities do much better than others with comparable students.  For example, University of California at Riverside, the least competitive campus in the elite UC system, “has an overall graduation rate of 66%, 15 percentage points better than the 51% median rate of its 33 peer institutions. . . . success at UC-Riverside is equally distributed across groups. The graduation rate is 65% for white students, 67% for Asian students, and 68% for Latino students.”

Other universities with exemplary or improving graduation rates are: Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, University of Northern Iowa, Binghamton University in New York, Miami University of Ohio, East Carolina University in North Carolina, University of Florida and Louisiana Tech. Other colleges and universities should study the success of Riverside and others to figure out what they’re doing right.

About Joanne


  1. Nice writing, Joanne, and nice site. I appreciate hearing from your perspective as an educator.

  2. Hmmmm … I have a bit of a logical problem with this story.

    1. Riverside is the “least competitive” of the California state colleges, I assume that means that it has the lowest admisssion requirements.

    2. From reading your blogs, I have learned that the easiest way to guarantee a high passing rate is to lower academic demands – and then base grades on the lower standards.

    So might not that be the “secret” of Riverside’s high graduation rate? It sure seems like a very possible scenerio … and it that’s right, I’m sure you don’t want those other “more competitive” schools to imitate them.

    Then again … I’m only theorizing!

  3. Roy W. Wright says:

    Exactly, Bob. To me, a low graduation rate is a sign of success.

  4. It’s worse than the first line suggests: MILLIONS of Americans won’t be graduation from college this summer.

  5. I’m not sure it is fair to say that because UC Riverside is the “least competitive” UC campus that it is a subpar UC school and would therefore have lower academic standards. It is much smaller than other UC campuses and not as well known. Hence the proportion of applications to spaces available may be smaller than UCLA or UC Berkeley. However, some of the programs at this school have some of the most renowned programs in the country. Their biomedical program weeds down to the top students and grants admission to the UCLA medical school and you complete your bs/medical degree in approx 7 years. The biochemistry department was well known to be one of the toughest in the nation.

    I think part of the key to the success of this campus is its size. Sure some of the lower division classes were held in large auditoriums but because of the smaller number of students, the upper division classes were much smaller. (One of my professors took my class out to lunch after finals, thats how small our class was.) You do get to know your professors and TA’s. If you haven’t guessed, I am a UC Riverside graduate. There was a tremendous amount of support available to students who needed help.

    As far as I can see, size matters.

  6. supedestroyer says:

    It is easily one of the the most overrated topics that comes up every year. To graduate in four years, (the usual idea of what to do) a student either goes to an Ivy league where everyone gets an A or B. If not at an Ivy type university,a student at a state university needs to stay on track, not change major, have tha ability to fit their time to the university schedule, do not transfer, and not drop classes.

    Since most college students are not the typical 18 year old full time student, the ability to meet the requirements of what a large state univeristy demands these days.

  7. I am afraid that I see two failures here, not one. The first is that so many high school students who are not ready for college or, often, capable of college work, enter college anyway.

    We sometimes forget that the average IQ is, more or less by definition, 100. (High school graduates probably average a few points higher.) That means that half are below 100. Most of those (and some above 100) will be unlikely to do well in real college work.

    That many do not complete college is only to be expected, since many should not be there.

    The second failure, the low completion rates and the length of time some take to complete, is also real, and is one of the shames of our system.

  8. “These devastating facts make clear the need for a renewed and comprehensive focus on higher education outcomes,” said Kati Haycock, Director of the Education Trust. “Colleges and universities must take more seriously their obligation to these students and change their practices to improve success for all students. Where do we start? To begin, we can learn more about what high-performing institutions are doing to be so successful year after year.”

    As a current college student I find statements such as this quite offensive. Why on earth do we need to be cuddled and coaxed through the (apparently lengthy judging by the focus on six years) process of college.
    At what point is the average young man or woman expected to take charge of their life, attend classes regardless of whether or not they want to, and do what they know they need to do to succeed in higher education? Apparently low figures don’t suggest a failing on the student’s behalf (considering many are out partying at bars 4-5 nights a week I can’t possibly imagine how it could be their fault), but rather a failing on the instution’s behalf for failing to properly motivate and direct their student’s education.
    I’m graduating next year with two majors and certification for teaching in secondary schools, (all in four years). I know many people, who while taking only 12-15 semester hours with one desired major and not a difficult one at that (communications and sociology come to mind), and these are full time students and not people holding down jobs as well mind you, who have managed to fail themselves out of the system due to partying, lack of attendance, and general apathy. This is not the institution’s fault, it’s their own damn fault.

  9. JimInNOVA says:

    I don’t see a low graduation rate as being a huge problem. Graduating from college should be an accomplishment, if it isn’t difficult then how distinctive is it? My class got the “look to the left, look to the right, one of you isn’t going to be at graduation” speech at our orientation. While that was about the four-year rate (five year is much higher), I can’t help but think that some of those people not graduating are the same people I saw stumbling home drunk on a tuesday night.

  10. Tom West says:

    I’ll have to agree with those who don’t find these figures a problem. By university, it is time to produce or be removed. While I dislike intensely the idea that your academic career should be determined for life by elementary or high school, at some point you do need to be held fully responsible for your academic output (or lack thereof). That time is college or university.

    I’m in favour of allowing as many people as is practical to attend college and university. Don’t sugar coat the graduation rates. Let students know at start how many people will make it through. Let the students make adult decisions with adult consequences.

    Many students only become mature enough to apply themselves in adulthood, and I’d hate to think that adolescent difficulties would preclude at least the chance to do well in university. (Tightening standards until you admit only those that you are relatively certain will graduate being the easiest method of increasing graduation rates.)

  11. Roy W. Wright says:

    To graduate in four years…a student…needs to…not transfer…

    Or, on the other hand, the student could simply be bright enough for college. I transferred after my first year and graduated in two more.

  12. “That many do not complete college is only to be expected, since many should not be there.

    The second failure, the low completion rates and the length of time some take to complete, is also real, and is one of the shames of our system. ”

    I’ll also say that low completion rate is not a failure. Letting people pay their money and take a swing at college, and flunking them if they don’t perform, seems like an eminently sensible idea to me.

    Too bad so many instructors and institutions seem to have an unreasonable reluctance to flunk people.

  13. Kristin says:

    I attend one of the highest-workload colleges in the U.S, and I can tell you this: even at my school, it is hard to actually fail if you simply complete the required homework assignments.
    But of course, minimal effort leads to minimal results. If our universities are so busy improving graduation rates by lowering standards that they can’t endow their graduates with this simple wisdom, what good are our degrees anyway???


  1. exvigilare says:

    Joanne Jacobs

    is having the same type of Google madness that I’m having. She’s next on the Google search mentioned earlier. Out of curiousity, I went for a visit and found this post about university graduation rates. Very interesting. (In all fairness,…