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24 Shocking Facts About College Graduation Rates

by Darko Jacimovic

The main goal for most new college students is graduation since college graduates are less likely to be unemployed. However, not everyone fulfills this objective. On average, it takes college students nearly six years to earn a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college.

According to research, the overall college graduation rates after six years were 56% and 58% for 2011 and 2012 classes, respectively. This number increased to 60% in 2018, but experts still believe that the rate is low and that it varies by school, state, race, etc. For example, private schools record a higher completion rate than their public counterparts.

Top College Graduation Facts (Editor’s Pick)

  • The graduation rate for female students is 10% higher than for male students
  • 71% of college dropouts say they need to work
  • Public institutions enroll a higher percentage of students than private ones
  • 26% of graduates end up underemployed
  • 5.3% of college students earn a degree within eight years
  • Only 20% of students graduate from the same institution
  • Students who start college at above the age of 20 are more likely to drop out
  • A college graduate earns 65% more than a college dropout
  • The graduation rate of the Black and Hispanic ethnicities is lower than 50%
  • 75% of students required to take remedial college classes fail to graduate.

College Graduation Statistics

College Graduation Rates - Book

1. There is an increase in college graduation rates over time.

There is a steady growth in the college graduation rates for two-year and four-year institutions. Report by NSC Research Center shows that there is an 83.6% graduation rate for full-time, four-year public starters. As for the two-year starters, the percentage reached 39.4%, whereas the four-year rate increased to 67.8%. 

Meanwhile, there is also a notable 5% growth in the long term trend for four–year public starters, from 60.6% of the 2006 class to 65.7% of the 2012 class.

2. Massachusetts has the highest graduation rate, while Arizona scores the lowest rate.

College graduation rate varies across states in the US, according to The Department of Education which publishes the data on graduation rates by state.

The statistics are for undergraduate students who complete the standard four-year bachelor’s degree within six years, and they are as follows:

15 states with the highest graduation rates

  • Massachusetts — 73.5%
  • Rhode Island — 71.1%
  • Washington — 69.3%
  • Iowa — 68.5%
  • Maryland — 68.3%
  • Connecticut — 68.0%
  • New Hampshire — 67.7%
  • Vermont — 67.1%
  • Pennsylvania — 67.0%
  • Virginia — 67.0%
  • New Jersey — 66.3%
  • New York — 66.0%
  • Delaware — 65.3%
  • Minnesota — 64.9%
  • California — 64.1%

15 states with the lowest graduation rates

  • Arizona — 26.3%
  • Alaska — 26.4%
  • Georgia — 42.6%
  • New Mexico — 43.6%
  • Nevada — 45.1%
  • Oklahoma — 46.3%
  • Arkansas — 46.9%
  • West Virginia — 47.0%
  • Montana — 47.3%
  • Idaho — 47.4%
  • Kentucky — 49.2%
  • Louisiana — 49.8%
  • Tennessee — 50.7%
  • South Dakota — 51.5%
  • Alabama — 51.8%.

3. 34% of undergraduate students attend a public two-year institution before enrolling in a four-year college.

Statistics from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) shows that the percentage of college graduates that first enrolled in a public two-year institution before transferring to a four-year college was 34% in 2017.

Texas is among the states with the highest percentage of a bachelor’s degree holders who are former community college students. It stands at 75%, while Rhode Island took the last spot with 24%.

3. 45% of women graduate in four years.

There is a significant difference in graduation rate when broken up by gender. The percentage of women who graduate within four years is 45%, and the graduation rate for men is 35%. 

Experts who compared the college graduation rates are worried that there is a growing gender gap. However, the six-year graduation rate begins to close that gap.

4. The graduation rate for the Black and Hispanic ethnicities is lower than 50%.

Students leave school due to several reasons. According to Value College’s study, lack of finance is one of the major causes and can be mostly found among minorities in the States.

The report shows that only about 40% of black students graduate within six years. 

College Graduation Rates by Race

  • Asian — 70.3%
  • White — 67.1%
  • Hispanic — 49.6%
  • Black — 41.0%

5. Public institutions have the highest proportion of enrollment.

Four-year public institutions enroll a higher percentage of students (44.8%), followed by two-year public institutions (33.2%), and four-year private non-profit institutions (19.5%).

Institution types with the lowest percentage of enrollment are the four-year private for-profit (2.3%), two-year private for-profit (0.2%), and two-year private non-profit institutions (0.1%).

6. The overall six-year outcome for the 2012 class is 58.31%.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center posted data on college completion rate in six years for the 2012 cohort. The result shows an increase of 1.45% (making it 58.31%) compared to the 2011 overall six-year outcome.

7. 26% of graduates end up underemployed.

According to the Burning Glass study in May 2018, 26% of students with college degrees end up being underemployed (jobs that don’t require college degrees). Only 34% of graduates become fully employed.

8. The new bill to help increase the completion rate for schools.

To help increase the university graduation rates, the Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee introduced the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill, which aims at improving the college graduation completion rate. For students who receive Pell Grant and carry more than a full-time course load, there is a bonus of $300, and the bill penalizes schools that dropout students in the middle of a semester.

9. Only 20% of students graduate from the same institution.

The federal government researched further on college completion rates and discovered that about 30% of college students transfer to another school, while only 20% graduate from the same school. The remaining students, about 40-50%, neither graduates nor transfer to a different college.

10. 5.3% of students graduate within eight years.

Center for American Progress researched on college graduation rates and discovered some interesting statistics. The new statistics show that an additional 5.3% of college students earn a degree within eight years.

11. Private colleges and universities produce more graduates than their public counterparts.

According to federal government data, the four-year graduation rate for public colleges and universities is 33.3%, with a six-year graduation rate being 65.7%. As for the private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation is 52.8%, and the six-year graduation rate is 76.1%.

12. Low-income students face difficulties, and only 16% of them graduate.

This is by far lower rate compared to 60% of the wealthiest students who graduate. However, lots of schools have committed to solving the problem of low graduation rates among low-income students. Their target is to reach 68,000 graduates in 2025, half of which should be low-income students.

Schools that are participating in this program include Michigan State University, Purdue University, Iowa State University, Ohio State University, Oregon State University, University of Texas–Austin, Georgia State University, University of Kansas, University of California–Riverside, University of Central Florida, and Arizona State University.

13. Experts blame inadequate secondary school preparation for low graduation rates.

University graduation rates are still low, and many claim that the central factor that causes this is the failure of secondary schools in preparing students for what’s ahead of them.

The other reason is individual students’ socio-economic status. The graduation rate is known to be low for campuses that enroll low-income students.

14. These are the top 10 schools with the highest graduation rates.

Graduation rates vary across the United States, and below is a list of the top 15 colleges with the highest college graduation rate for the first time, full-time undergraduate students.

Princeton University

Founded in 1746, the private, non-profit university has an acceptance rate of 7%. The school’s graduation rate is 97%.

Harvard University

Harvard University is a private institution founded in 1636. It has an acceptance rate of 5% and a graduation rate of 98%.

Columbia University

Columbia University is a four-year private institution founded in 1754. The school has an acceptance rate of 7%, and the graduation rate is 95%.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The institution was founded in 1861 and is a four-year private, non–profit school that focuses on scientific and technological research. It has an acceptance rate of 8%. The MIT graduation rate is 91%.

Yale University

Yale University’s acceptance rate is 6%. The school started in 1701, and the graduation rate is 96%.

Stanford University

Launched in 1885 as a private research institution, Stanford University has an acceptance rate of 5%, and the graduation rate is 95%.

University of Chicago

The University of Chicago started in 1890 as a private, non-profit institution. The acceptance rate of the school is 8%, with a graduation rate of 93%.

University of Pennsylvania

Founded in 1740, the UPENN graduation rate is 96%, with an acceptance rate of 9%.

Northwestern University

Northwestern University started in 1851. It’s a private institution with an acceptance rate of 11% and a graduation rate of 93%.

Duke University

Duke University started in 1838, and just like others on this list, it’s a private institution. It has an acceptance rate of 11%, and the graduation rate is 95%.

15. Schools with low graduation rates.

While others may boast of high graduation rates, college grad statistics show that there are still schools with worrying graduation rates. Below are ten schools on the list:

  • Strayer University — 29%
  • Oklahoma State University — 61%
  • Harris-Stowe State University — 8%
  • Bainbridge State College — 23.4%
  • Henry Ford College — 19.2%
  • East Georgia State College — 8.2%
  • College of Southern Nevada — 5.4%
  • Georgia Highlands College — 14.8%
  • Langston University — 18%
  • Gordon State College — 19.8%
  • Atlanta Metropolitan State College – 20.1%
  • Western International University – 3%
  • South Georgia State College – 18.2%
  • Oglala Lakota College – 6.2%

16. What is the average college graduation rate?

Institutions use different processes in calculating graduation rates. Still, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal agency that’s responsible for gathering, examining, and publishing statistical information relevant to the US educational system. 

Data from the NCES shows that the average graduation rate for colleges is 41%. This rate is for students that have completed their bachelors’ degree within four years at the same institution they enrolled in. As for college students that graduate within six years, the rate is 59%.

Meanwhile, the average graduation rate for high schools sits at 84.6%.

17. College pricing rose much slower from 2013/14 to 2018/19 than it did during the previous five years.

According to the College Board, college pricing tripled from 1988 to 2019 for public four-year institutions. Prices vary by institutions and locations. As for public two-year and private non-profit four-year institutions, the price more than doubled from 1988 to 2019.

Before adjusting for inflation, tuition and fees increased less than 4% across all sectors, from 2017 to 2019. 

18. 11% of community college students transfer to a four-year college.

Statistics by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) shows that the overall community college completion rate is 38%, which is still unimpressive. Some people argue that the poor rate is due to 11% of students who transfer to four-year institutions to complete their degrees there. Additionally, Forbes states that 47% of community college students drop out entirely.

19. Columbia University and the other three schools top the retention rate list with 99% each.

Study shows that not every school does the work of preserving students perfectly. Below are the top 15 freshman retention rates by schools:

  • Columbia University – 99%
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology – 99%
  • University of Chicago – 99%
  • Yale University – 99%
  • Brown University – 98%
  • California Institute of Technology – 98%
  • Duke University – 98%
  • Northwestern University – 98%
  • Princeton University – 98%
  • Stanford University – 98%
  • University of Notre Dame – 98%
  • University of Pennsylvania – 98%
  • Carnegie Mellon University – 97%
  • Cornell University – 97%
  • Dartmouth College – 97%

20. Millennials are the generation with the most college graduates.

Research on college graduation rates by the City Lab that targeted population of different ages shows that millennials are the generation with the highest college graduates. The rate moved up from 24% in 1981 to 36% percent as of recent.

It also shows that Boston and Madison are leading the top ten list with a whopping 58% of college degree-holding millennials.

College Dropout Statistics

College Graduation Rates - Dropout

21. Approximately 75% of students required to take remedial college classes fail to graduate.

Higher education experts believe that around 40-60% of college starters need to take remedial college classes in maths and English. This process only decreases the college completion rate as it increases the time it takes for them to attain a degree, thereby reducing their likelihood to graduate.

College remediation rates revealed that about 75% of community college students who require remediation never graduate because they drop out of boredom and frustration.

22. Students who start college when they are 20 or older are more likely to drop out.

According to college dropout rates for 2019, college students who enrolled at the age below 20 are less likely to drop out. In this case, only 13-22% drop out. Meanwhile, the drop out rate is higher for students who enrolled at the age of 21 and above.

23. 71% of college dropouts say they need to work.

Many reasons can lead to dropout, but high tuition bills are not the number one cause. Many students work, and 71% of them had to drop out because they couldn’t manage their time with both work and school. Only 31% of those that cited money as the main reason dropped out because of high tuition rates. 

Other reasons influencing college dropout rates are: 

  • Family obligations
  • Steadily failing courses
  • Boredom.

24. A college graduate earns 65% more than a college dropout.

Having a secure financial future is the target for most Americans attending college. Unfortunately, the majority of students from half of the country’s schools were unable to acquire college degrees in 2018.

According to CNBC, those without a college degree earn less than $28,000 a year, similar to what a typical high school graduate makes. 


College graduation rates are crucial because they help us to know the performance level of a school. When considering which institution to attend, the first thing you will have to look at is its graduation rate. A low number is usually a bad sign. However, although statistics are vital information, they shouldn’t be the only thing to consult before making your final choice.


What is the average college graduation rate?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate for public colleges and universities is at 60%, and private non-profit had a 66% graduation rate. As for private for-profit institutions, the graduation rate is 37%. 

How are college graduation rates calculated?

They are calculated using the percentage of first-time, first-year undergraduate students that complete their programs within 150% of the starting time. This method is used by institutions that only count the six-year graduation rates. As for institutions such as the IPEDS that count eight-year rates, graduation rates are calculated by dividing the total number of completers within 200% by the number of entering cohort.

What college has the best graduation rate?

The college with the best graduation rate is Washington and Lee University. It is ranked as number 1 on the US News list of the best colleges, with a four-year graduation rate of 92%.

Founded in 1749, the school enrolls a total of 1,829 undergraduate students. The location of the school is Lexington, VA., and has a campus size of 430 acres.

What is the average dropout rate in college?

Statistics by College Atlas shows that out of 70% of Americans who attend college, only two-thirds would earn a college degree, while 30% of first-year college students would end up dropping out after their first year. Also, a survey by LendEDU revealed that 55% of students struggle to pay for college due to financial problems.

The percentage of students who leave school is four times higher for first-generation than the second-generation of students.

What percentage of college students actually graduate?

Around 65% of first-time, full-time undergraduate students earn a degree within six years at the same institution. The rate is 65.7% at public institutions, 76.1% at private non-profit institutions, 37.3% at private for-profit institutions, and 39.2% at two-year public institutions. 

The graduation rate differs by gender, and female students have a higher six-year graduation rate at 63%, while their male counterparts are at 57%.

What college has the highest dropout rate?

Southern New Hampshire University is believed to be the school with the highest dropout rate. The school sits at the bottom of the list when it comes to retention of students, with a retention rate of 61%. According to The Edvocate, despite having a low retention rate, students who enroll for their sophomore year of college at SNHU increase their chance of graduating early by 12.3%. 

How do college completion rates increase?

Removing fundamental barriers increases completion rates. These barriers include unclear pathways from enrollment to graduation and a lack of easily navigable support services. Addressing these issues increases completion rates.

Other ways could include leveraging emerging technologies, applying proven and promising models of teaching, evaluating innovative efforts, and disseminating information effectively.

Why is the college graduation rate so low?

The inability to pay for high tuition is one of the reasons students drop out. So to increase graduation rates, experts suggest that schools should reduce the associated costs. Having lower tuition would remove the barriers and increase graduation rates.

Other suggestions were that schools should make students feel like they are part of a community, they should hire more guidance counselors, etc. 


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