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Graduation Rate

Going to college means getting a degree. The graduation rate is a good indicator of how long it might take to earn that diploma.

How many students graduate from a particular college seems like such a basic consumer fact that it's difficult to imagine that as recently as the early 1990s, the federal government didn't even collect the information.

The change came about as the result of the Student Right-to-Know Act, which was passed by Congress in 1990, and required colleges to disclose information on graduation rates and serious crimes.

In particular, the law requires colleges to report the proportion of students “completing their program within 150 percent of the normal time to completion.” For four-year colleges, that means the proportion of students who earn bachelor’s degrees within six years. 

It would take until 1997 for the federal government to actually begin systematically collecting those numbers. And by then, the definition was quickly becoming outdated.  

Higher education was in a state of rapid transition, with more students going to college part time and transferring between institutions, and more adults returning for their degrees. What were called nontraditional students then are today's traditional students. But very few of them are captured by the federal definition of the graduation rate.

It doesn’t cover people who begin college as part-time students. It doesn’t cover people who begin at community colleges and then transfer to four-year institutions. In fact, it doesn’t cover people who transfer at all: To get picked up in the federal data, students have to begin and end at the same institution. It doesn’t cover the nontrivial number of students who complete college seven or more years after they start. Whole swaths of higher education are rendered invisible.

That group includes President Obama, who started at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, in 1979. As a rising junior, looking to find a larger community of black students, he transferred to Columbia University. He got his diploma in 1983, and both institutions consider him an alumnus. But by national standards, first used in the mid-90s, he wouldn't even be a graduate. He'd be nothing.

Of the five million students who started college in the fall of 2009, for example, 2.4 million of them didn't fit the federal definition, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Nearly 40 percent of all students in college then were enrolled part time, the department's data show. And many students from that entering class have probably since transferred. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a third of students who started college in the fall of 2006 transferred at least once in the five years that followed. At the same time, colleges increasingly serve adult students who may have earned some credit in the past and now want to finish a degree.

Additional Resources

College Portraits

This Web site is the result of an effort by public colleges to better collect information on student outcomes. 

Complete College America

Limited information is available for many students who don’t fit into the traditional first-time mold. Complete College America provides graduation summaries for 33 participating states, including overall rates for part-time students and those who have taken remedial courses 

College Completion

A companion Web site from The Chronicle of Higher Education that shares data on college graduation rates for nearly 3,800 institutions in a visually stimulating way.