College graduation has become an important part of the national agenda, with politicians and philanthropic leaders challenging higher education to do a better job of helping students earn high-quality degrees. That, of course, requires a solid understanding of what the national college graduation rate actually is. There are two primary ways to measure this. One is to calculate an attainment rate–the percentage of some population (e.g. adults age 25-64) who have attained a degree. That’s the number that often gets cited in international comparisons, particularly in recent years as many OECD countries have narrowed and in a few cases surpassed the United States’ historical lead. When President Obama says he wants to retake the international lead in college graduation by 2020, this what he’s talking about. This number gets regularly updated by the Census and runs about 40 percent — roughly 30 percent of working-age adults in America have a bachelor’s degree and another 10 percent have an associate’s degree.

The other often-used number is the graduation rate: of those students who start college, the percent who finish within a defined amount of time. The overall national graduation rate is calculated less often, because while an individual college can tell you how many entering students got a degree from that institution, they don’t always know if students who left before graduating got a degree somewhere else. Thus, the most reliable source for this number is the Beginning Postsecondary Survey, which is periodically administered by the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education and tracks a representative sample of students who enter college for the first time in a given year. The last complete BPS survey began in 1996 and tracked students through 2001, six years being the standard timeframe for measuring college graduation.

There are lots of ways to slice the data and decisions to make about which students to track, but the two most widely used measures are the percent of all students who started college anywhere and got a degree of any kind–casting the widest possible net in terms of both the numerator and denominator–and the percent of students who start at a four-year institution with the goal of getting a bachelor’s degree who get a bachelor degree, which is the best measure of success for the traditional four-year college path that a great many students still take.

The last BPS found that 62.7 percent of 1996 students who began at a four-year college seeking a bachelor’s degree got one by 2001. Yesterday, NCES released the first results from the newest BPS, which tracked students from 2003 to 2009. It found a nearly identical national graduation rate: 63.2 percent. Of the remaining students, 4 percent earned an associate’s degree or certificate, 8.8 percent were still enrolled at a four-year institution, 2.9 percent were enrolled at a two-year institution, and 21 percent had dropped out.

The numbers for all students were, as before, substantially worse. 30.7 percent of all first-time college students in 2003 earned a bachelor’s degree by 2009, 9.3 earned an associate’s degree, and 9.4 percent earned a certificate. 15 percent were still enrolled somewhere and 35.5 percent had dropped out. This represents a small upward tick in bachelor’s degree attainment, from 28.8 percent, but it was balanced out by a decline in associate’s degrees and particularly certificates, which fell from 12.0 percent. In total, the “all students, all degrees” graduation rate fell from 50.8 percent to 49.4 percent, which means that if you’re in a particularly uncharitable mood you would be technically correct in saying that in the 1990s the majority of all college students graduated whereas in the 2000s the majority did not. But it’s not much of a difference and substituting B.A.’s for certificates is a good thing.

Looking past the averages, of course, shows major disparities among different student, degree, and institutional types. Some highlights (unless otherwise noted I’m referring to the initial cohort of all students):

- Only 11.6 percent of students who start at community colleges earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.
- The bachelor’s degree graduation rate for students who start at public four-year institutions is 59.5 percent. At private non-profits, 64.6 percent. At for-profits, 15.7 percent. Even taking into account 14.6 percent of the latter students who get associate’s degrees (compared to 3.8 at both public and private non-profits) that’s still not a very good number.
- While 45 percent of recent high school graduates earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, nine percent of non-recent high school graduates do the same.
- Among students who were always enrolled full-time while they were in school, 29.7 percent were not enrolled in college and had no degree six years after starting college. Among students who were always enrolled part-time, the equivalent number was 71.3 percent.
- Students who were 18 years old or younger when they started college in 2003 were ten times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students who were 30 years or older.
- Racial gaps widen as students move up the degree ladder. White students starting at two-year institutions have about the same likelihood as black students of earning a certificate, are 60 percent more likely to earn an associate’s degree, and are more than twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. The graduation rate for white students starting at four-year institutions is 62.6 percent, compared to 40.5 percent for black students and 41.5 percent for Hispanic students.
- There’s almost a 30 percentage point gap (40.4 to 69.3) in the graduation rate for four-year students whose parents never went to college compared to students whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree or more.
- Most four-year students in the bottom income quartile don’t earn bachelor’s degrees on time (47.1 percent) whereas three-quarters of top-quartile students (76.4 percent) do.

All in all, this confirms what we already knew: college works well for the kind of student who has been going to college for a long time: white, middle- and upper-class children of college graduates who enroll full-time directly after leaving high school. As much as people like to say “non-traditional is the new traditional,” there are still many students like that and the large majority of them manage to graduate (how much they learn is a different matter.)

For everyone else, college graduation is dicey. Most of the growth in higher education has come from older, first-generation, immigrant, and lower-income students. It’s easy enough for skeptics to assert that these students aren’t graduating because they’re not college material. I think this massively discounts the likelihood that institutions whose basic structures and cultures were established decades or even centuries ago, for a particular kind of student, have done a poor job of adapting to the needs of different students going to college in a different time. There’s plenty of evidence that similar institutions enrolling similar students have very different graduation rates, and that some institutions with low graduations suffer from managerial incompetence that shocks the conscience.

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