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graduation_ratesWhen you’re considering what college to attend, one qualification will always come up: graduation rate. Graduation rate refers to the time in which a student enters and then completes a degree at a 4-year college or university, usually expressed as a percentage: X% of enrolled students complete their degree in four years. We can find these rates listed on many national rankings, and we may think the interpretation is fairly simple; a high number is good, a low number is bad.

Well, that’s tricky. First calculated in the mid-90’s, graduation rate keeps record of full-time, first-time students who start in the fall and graduate 4 years later. All transfer student are excluded, whether transferring out to complete at another college, or transferring in to complete their degree. So, people who eventually do complete a degree, maybe even on time, don’t count. Because of that and other issues, graduation rate is sometimes disputed, so it’s worth knowing what it means when you’re deciding which college is the best value for you.

Graduation rate as a measure of accountability and transparency

First off, we want to trust an institution to deliver. If graduation rates are low, that can tell us something about the school: it may mean students do not get the academic support they need to succeed, that they are disappointed by the faculty or staff, or that they find life at the school unaffordable. Note the “may” – a low graduation rate doesn’t necessarily mean any of those things, but it might be an indication of trouble.

And that may give pause to a prospective student.  Extended enrollment is costly, so the best course is to finish on time. You might look at data and see clearly that a school scores a 60% graduation rate. If, for some reason, you’re one of the 40% who needs an extra year or two, that may be an additional $8,655 per year (based on 2014 four-year public college rates) just in tuition! That’s a big hit to your wallet.

Graduation rate as a measure of quality

But does a higher graduation rate make you, as an individual, more likely to finish on time? Maybe. Jeff Selingo, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests there may be “peer effects” such that “being around other students who want to finish college makes a significant difference.” Positive peer pressure, in other words – a high graduation rate may mean an environment in which graduating is highly valued and encouraged.

On the other hand, many schools with the highest graduation rates are also the colleges with the most selective, elite standards. They only accept exceptional, high-performing students, so understandably, more of those students graduate. It doesn’t mean the college is better per se; it just means those students were going to graduate at any college, because they were driven anyway.

Graduation rate is flawed but helpful

The numbers for graduation rate come from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, which only tracks full-time students beginning as freshmen in the fall and continuing on a traditional, four-year college career. That may have accounted for most students twenty years ago, when IPEDS started keeping track, but times have changed.

Non-traditional students make up a sizable population these days, and conventional graduation rate calculations don’t account for them. What if it takes a student many more years to attain a degree than the criteria set by IPEDS? Well, that lowers graduation rates.  What about transfer students? With tuition skyrocketing, many students are choosing to begin in community college and transfer into four-year institutions; they don’t always count (college must have transfer as college mission according to IPEDS). What about older, returning students, who may come into college with old credits, or who can only take courses part-time? Nope, not counted.

Final words

It’s worth remembering Selingo’s warning: choosing a college based on graduation rate is like buying a car based on its safety ratings: it’s “just one measure of many.” Sure, it tells you something about the college, but don’t let it rule your choices, especially if you’re a non-traditional student. Educate yourself fully about any college you’re considering – not just graduation rates, but all of the factors that go into making an education worth your investment.