When high school students start looking for colleges to apply to, they rarely consider college graduation rates. Even with the sky-rocketing costs of college, most families still don’t consider graduation rates. They may notice it when a school advertises its four-year graduation guarantee but I suspect most just dismiss it as not applying to “their” situation.
But college graduation rates are misleading!
Then you have voices in the media from experts who claim that graduation rates are misleading. The reasons include:
- They don’t actually measure the value of the degree.
- They are more of a reflection of a college’s inputs rather than any affect the college may have on the student.
- They don’t reflect the fact that students are no longer “traditional” 18 year-olds attending a residential college full-time.
- They don’t track transfers in or out of a college.
- They don’t account for the variation of the quality and preparation of the students at different colleges and universities.
I’m sure there are reasons I’ve missed and most of them are legitimate concerns in terms of evaluating a college’s ability to graduate students.
It is kind of funny though. I spent my graduate years looking at high school graduation rates and let me tell you, having poor, academically unprepared students with significant outside distractions didn’t cut the high schools any slack. And most high schools don’t get to pick their students.
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Do you have a traditional college student?
So let me tell you why YOU should care.
First, the YOU I’m talking about is the family that is preparing to send their 18 year-old high school graduate to a full-time college expecting to only pay for four-years of attendance to avoid soul-crushing debt.
That YOU is exactly the YOU that is measured by current college graduation rates.
Unfortunately, the graduation rates commonly reported are the six-year rate for four-year degrees but it’s a start.
Who is responsible for transfers?
For YOU, the argument that the rate doesn’t track transfers is irrelevant. Why? Because transferring, for whatever reason, tends to be an expensive business in that not all courses transfer or that transfer students don’t generally qualify for as much financial aid.
Of course, there are always mismatches and students will need to transfer through no fault of the college. But if there is such a high number of transfers that it’s affecting the graduation rate, then the college has to take some responsibility since it admitted them.
A colleague of my husband was adjunct faculty at a private college with a low graduation rate. She said that the school explained the low rate was the result of so many of their students being first generation college students and that most who left the college eventually graduated from the local public university.
I’m pretty sure that explanation doesn’t show up in its admissions presentations.
It isn’t as if this school was providing tremendous financial aid for the students. These students were encouraged to take out large loans for a quality, private college education that they never completed but would still have to pay for. The reality is that the school accepted them-it can’t charge them $45,000 a year and then wash its hands of the matter.
Well, actually, they can because that’s what is happening.
Make Meaningful Comparisons
The fact is that colleges with similarly situated students will have very dissimilar graduation rates. That’s not just “interesting ” information. That’s information that represents the chances of graduating on-time with a minimum amount of debt. It adds up to real dollars.
It’s one of the reasons why I use the five-year graduation rate for public colleges and the four-year rate for private ones. I figure you can attend an extra year at a public college and still pay less than attending four-years at a private school. The cost difference is worth the possibility of a fifth year because of difficulties in getting required classes for graduation. Of course, that also means delaying earning income for a year which should be considered as well.
Sometimes it’s easier to demonstrate this point by working backwards from the graduation rates. The table below lists colleges with a 4 year graduation rate between 70% and 75%. According to IPEDS, there are 49 schools with 500 or more full-time graduates in this category including 8 public institutions.
Now consider how different they are. The acceptances rates among the schools range from a low of 5% at Stanford to 88% at Saint Johns University. The lowest reported 75th% ACT Score was 26 at Spelman College while Stanford had the highest at 35. Sixteen schools had scores below 30.
The lowest endowment per student was at The College of New Jersey with only $4,175 while the highest was $144,7655 was at, you guessed it, Stanford. Not surprisingly, Stanford had the highest Instruction per Student at $101,724. The lowest, $8,185, was at Assumption College.
If you’re just looking at colleges with a 26 75th% ACT score, you’ll find 4 year graduation rates ranging from 1% to 75%. If you consider only colleges that accept 88% of applications, the lowest graduation was 8%, the highest was 79%.
The point is that graduation rates can represent real differences between colleges and families should benchmark them just as they would any other data point in their college search.
Ultimately, YOU are planning on graduating from a four-year college. If most of the students don’t, shouldn’t you know why?
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