Study Indicates Poor National Graduation Performance

By Staff
June 4, 2009

A new report released this week indicates that four-year colleges across the country graduate an average of just 53 percent of students within six years. The study--which was conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank--was based on data reported to the Education Department by about 1,400 institutions of higher learning throughout the United States.

Entitled "Diplomas and Dropouts," the analysis represents full-time, first-time, degree-seeking students, which effectively does not include transfer students. Although Inside Higher Ed points out that this definition equates to only about 25 percent of full-time students enrolled in the United States, education leaders are taking the study seriously.

"The country needs to do something about this," said Joni Finney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in higher education and was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer [from an article originally located at]. "We see generations of students being lost."

Particularly concerning to the authors of the report was the disparity in graduation rates between similar schools. Heritage University and Walla Walla University, both in Washington state, were used as examples to prove the point: "Both are noncompetitive, private master's degree-granting colleges located in the same state," noted the authors. "However, Walla Walla graduates 53 percent of its students, while Heritage graduates only 17 percent. Our analysis reveals that such substantial differences between similar schools are quite common."

But others countered that the study didn't take into account extenuating factors which could impact the findings. Inside Higher Ed, for example, points out that Heritage is located on the Yakama Indian Reservation and primarily enrolls Native American and minority students who may require more college preparation.

Similarly, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black state system school, graduated only 29 percent of its students in six years--the worst rate in the area. While Cheyney spokeswoman Antoinette Colon acknowledged to the Inquirer that the school was trying to improve, she also noted that many of their students hail from "underestablished educational systems" in the area.

Nevertheless, said the report's authors, individuals should take the findings into account when selecting a school. "When two colleges that enroll similar students that have a graduation rate gap of 20 or 30 percentage points or more, it is fair to ask why," the study says. "More important, students, parents, guidance counselors, and taxpayers (who foot the bill for many student costs) all deserve to know which schools graduate most of their students and which graduate only a few."

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