Graduation rates: Mismatch between 6-year stats and 4-year expectations

As higher education advocates and federal policymakers seek to move the dial on college completion, some are asking why the federal government continues to use a six-year, or even eight-year, graduation rate metric to gauge institutions’ success in meeting a four-year goal. Writing that it is “like judging the performance of an airline by the percentage of its flights that take up to twice as long as scheduled to reach their destinations,” The Hechinger Report recently explored the implications for students, families, and schools.

According to a national survey conducted by the University of California Los Angeles, 90 percent of incoming four-year college students expect to graduate on time. Yet, less than half will earn a degree within four years; less than two-thirds will earn one by the six-year mark.

A variety of factors can delay or derail students’ academic progress, including inadequate K-12 preparation, changes in their major, difficulty enrolling in required courses, competing work and family obligations, and financial hurdles. Such barriers have led to especially acute completion gaps for Black and Latinx students. According to The Hechinger Report, at the nation’s public universities, white students are 250 percent more likely to graduate than Black students and 60 percent more likely than Latinx students.

Public reporting out of step with student goals

Ideally, families, advisors, and policymakers would steer students away from colleges and universities that graduate too few students on time, recognizing the higher costs—and decreased attainment rates—associated with delays. But “they’d have to dig deep” to identify those, given that the government’s College Scorecard consumer website lists eight-year rates, and its College Navigator site shows six-year rates, with an option to toggle to four-year stats.

The six-year metric has been standard since Congress first started requiring colleges to publicly report graduation rates in the 1990s. Keeping it “creates little incentive for universities and colleges to improve these rates,” The Hechinger Report notes. However, pandemic-related disruptions are expected to further worsen graduation outcomes—potentially intensifying scrutiny and sparking calls for improvement.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Study: A culture of belonging can improve academic outcomes

College students report more positive learning experiences and achieve greater academic success when faculty have the resources and institutional support to create a culture of belonging.