Economic Perspective: College Completion Rates

NC State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professor Dr. Mike Walden working in a recording studio.

“Today’s program looks at college completion rates. Mike, we know that all individuals who begin college don’t necessarily finish and receive a degree. What do the statistics tell us on the percentage of college entrants who do get a degree?”


“Most university systems measure this by something called the six-year graduation rate. For example, the UNC system has that. You can look up any of the UNC system campuses, and find what the six-year graduation rate is. However, folks who look at this say that there are some issues there, and we’re not picking on the UNC system. These are issues everywhere.”

“Who are they including as students? Usually they only include students who entered that institution and stay at that institution and graduate, but that leaves out people who may enter one institution, go somewhere else and graduate. Also, how do you account for students who work full-time versus part-time, et cetera. So there’s some issues with those numbers.”

“Fortunately there’s a group called the National Student Clearinghouse that handles all these questions. They take a cross-section of students. They track students, whether they stay at the institution and graduate or go somewhere else. So here are the numbers we have, the major numbers we have for 2009. These are the students entering college in 2009.”

“If you look at, and these are nationwide numbers by the way, a cross-section of full and part-time students, the six-year graduation rate for a cross-section of all universities across the country was 41 percent. If you include, however, students who went elsewhere (they started at institution A, but they didn’t finish there. They went to institution B and graduated) that 41 percent rises to 53 percent. So that’s good.”

“You do see however a big difference between full and part-time students. The six-year graduation rate for full-time students, of graduating at the same or another institution, is a whopping 74 percent. But for part-time students it’s a very poor 20 percent. So that apparently makes a big difference, but these are the numbers that account for those very sticky problems in who you’re measuring here. These are the numbers to track. One downside, you cannot get these numbers however for individual colleges and universities.”

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