Open Education Open Education

College Graduation Rates – Statistics Tell a Sad Tale

Poor college completion rates – suggested solutions even worse.

The results of a first-of-its-kind study recently graced the front pages of the Boston Globe. In Hub Grads Come Up Short in College, James Vaznis revealed an all too similar refrain regarding college completion rates.

Of the members of the graduating class from Boston high schools for the year 2000 who had gone on to higher education, nearly two-thirds of the class had not earned a college diploma seven years after they had begun collegiate studies.

The findings were particularly troublesome for a city that has touted its steadily increasing college enrollment rates over the last few years. In simplest terms, Boston does see more high school graduates enrolled in college than does the nation as a whole, but the college completion rate for those students is actually lower than the national average.


City of Prestigious Institutions
The news hit the city, often dubbed the ‘”Center of American Higher Education,” extremely hard. The Globe editorial staff penned a companion piece the same day entitled, Getting in Isn’t Enough.

Stating it was time “to take a long and deep look into the gulf between ‘getting in’ and ‘getting through college’,” the editorial revealed some incredibly dismal numbers.


  • students attending two-year community colleges had a 12 percent graduation rate.
  • students attending four-year public state colleges had approximately a 33 percent graduation rate.
  • students at four-year, private colleges managed the best rate at 56 percent.

Another revealing statistic, not evident in the editorial but on display in Vaznis’ article, referred to the completion status calculation more fully. It seems that not all of the 675 students who were deemed to have graduated had actually earned a bachelor’s degree. Also included in the completion rate were students who had earned either a certificate or an associate’s degree.

Thomas M. Menino, the Mayor of Boston, responded by announcing a major initiative. It set forth a goal of increasing the college graduation rate by 50 percent for this year’s high school seniors. In addition, the Mayor went on to suggest a goal of doubling the rate a second time for those students who are currently high school sophomores.

“We want to make sure all our kids in Boston get a good education and graduate from college,” Menino is quoted by the Globe. “It’s not just about getting into college but how to stay in college.”
As but another step that has been uttered time and again across America in recent years, officials indicated it was time the city school system did a better job of preparing its high school students for success after graduation. That was followed by the traditional hue and cry to raise K-12 education standards.

And last but not least, the traditional basis for pushing all students towards earning a bachelor’s degree was postured once again.

“A graduate of a four-year college will make almost $1 million more than a high school graduate over a lifetime,” Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, told the Globe. “We need to help students every step of the way earn the prize: a college degree.”

The Wrong Focus
The state of public education has focused on the K-12 system in recent years. During that time frame, higher education has earned a free pass. In fact, the general consensus from most folks is that America’s colleges and universities represent the best of the educational system in our country.

However, Mark Schneider, the vice president for new educational initiatives at the American Institutes for Research, offers a very contrasting viewpoint. In The Costs of Failure Factories in American Higher Education, Schneider asks, “If there is virtually universal agreement that American high schools are failing, how do our colleges and universities measure up against such a low benchmark?”

Turns out not very well.

WikipediaIt can be difficult comparing data but Schneider does his best to compare apples to apples. However, he does note one specific advantage for higher education: colleges generally use a six year window as the norm for completing the four years of study while high school calculations are based on a four year timeframe.

“The median high school graduation rate, for example, is 77 percent,” writes Schneider, “but the median post-secondary graduation rate is more than twenty-five points lower. While American high schools graduate about three-fourths of their students in four years, American colleges graduate only about half of their students in six.”

Schneider indicates that there are also significant differences by type of institution. But the key notion is a simple one: “The low high school graduation rates that have long been decried as a failure of America’s education system are mirrored in even lower college graduation rates.”

In addition, the long-standing differences in high school graduation rates based on race and ethnicity have led to expressions such as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while public education K-12 is often labeled in such a manner, it must be duly noted that colleges and universities also see large gaps in post-secondary completion rates when comparing whites to blacks and Hispanics.

College Does Not Work for Many Students
One positive is that the poor completion rates are finally catching people’s attention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently launched a new initiative that seeks to sort through the poor completion rates of college bound students, particularly those who have chosen the community college route.

In the Globe article, there is at least some acknowledgment of the “enormous barriers facing urban high school graduates.” Vaznis points out that many of the individuals being discussed within the study are the very first members of their respective families to actually attend college.

The writer notes further that the study did not specifically address reasons for the low graduation rates. But he speculates, quite soundly, that “these students often have financial problems, some are raising children, and others are held back by a need to retake high school courses in college because they lack basic skills.”

In regards to the issue of college preparedness, a short time ago we discussed the words of Marty Nemko, a man dubbed the “The Ralph Nader of Education.” At that time we offered what Nemko calls his ‘killer statistic.’

Marty Nemko“For those aspiring college students who finished in the bottom 40 percent of their high school classes, but went on to attempt to secure a four-year degree right out of high school, roughly two-thirds had studied for the better part of eight and a half years without obtaining a diploma.”

In simplest terms, those students who lack the ability to handle the rigor associated with college are unsuccessful when they give college a try.

Nemko adds that “only 23 percent of the 1.3 million high-school graduates of 2007 who took the ACT examination were ready for college-level work in the core subjects of English, math, reading, and science.”

Yet four-year colleges admit and accept funds “from hundreds of thousands of such students each year.” However, according to the data we have just reviewed, those same schools fail to see these students through the process of completing their degree program.

Nemko pulls no punches with his summary assessments.

“Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center.

“As a result, many institutions tend to educate students in the cheapest way possible: large lecture classes, with necessary small classes staffed by rock-bottom-cost graduate students. At many colleges, only a small percentage of the typical student’s classroom hours will have been spent with fewer than 30 students taught by a professor.”

And as for the quality of instruction, well:

“The more prestigious the institution, the more likely that faculty members are hired and promoted much more for their research than for their teaching. Professors who bring in big research dollars are almost always rewarded more highly than a fine teacher who doesn’t bring in the research bucks.”

Square Pegs, Round Holes
Ultimately we have the worst of all potential situations: students who do not have the academic ability to handle the level of rigor that college must demand combined with ill-equipped institutions of higher education that seem incapable of helping these students succeed.

That issue is then exacerbated by education officials who continue to insist that all we must do is simply raise standards further and that by doing so, somehow the square peg, round hole malady facing us will disappear.

Unfortunately, those same officials also insist that the only path to success in life is by way of a college education. It is the same nonsense that brought forth the No Child Left Behind Act and the oxymoron, proficiency for all.

The notion that college is for everyone really just pushes NCLB to the K-16 arena. It is the fundamental belief that every child regardless of innate ability must be placed on a ‘bachelor’s degree or bust’ path, followed by the assumption that every student is capable of such academic rigor.

Benjamin LyonsThis is a false and damaging assumption. A bachelor’s degree for every student is no more viable than setting forth a goal of a masters or a PhD for every student. Yet, would we ever in our right minds suggest that such a standard is possible?

It is time that those in charge came to their senses and acknowledged that other approaches to learning are possible. It is time to recognize that hands on vocational schooling and working apprenticeships can be just as viable for helping students learn as the traditional academic teaching tools of reading and writing.

If only our educational experts could grasp that our country needs skilled workers as well as college graduates they might embark on a different path, one that creates multiple educational opportunities for our youngsters based on a goal of helping all students succeed.

What we do not need is more high school or college drop outs. But instead of examining the real issue, a one size fits all approach to education, we opt to tinker with standards and expectations, then set goals that are beyond the reach of many students.

Unless we take a look at providing forms of education that utilize methods of instruction that do not rely on teaching through reading and writing, then Mayor Menino’s goals, however worthy, will simply result in a familiar refrain.

And another summary study with an all-too similar title, Grads Come Up Short in College.

Flickr photos courtesy of Cliff1066 and Benjamin Lyons.


1 Tim Mattingly { 05.09.09 at 10:25 am }

Dear Mr. Thomas,

I just read your article, “Open Education, free education for all”. A friend of mine keeps telling me we need more money for colleges.

I employ 30 people with just 4 college graduates. We need more money spent at the high school and community college level. Give me a person who can read and write English with good math skills and I can provide him a $40,000 to $50,000 a year job.

While reading your article I realized that research should be separated from teaching. My son just graduated from CalTech with a degree in Physics. One-third of the professors are Nobel Prize winners and Caltech professors are required to teach. My son’s average class size was six students and always taught by a professsor.

I live in Houston, Texas and Texas has a good community college system. I have taught at the community college. My wife grew up in El Paso which is 90% Hispanic. We talk about education a lot and the biggest problem Texas has is the Hispanic community does not value education. Only 25% of the students who started high school with my wife graduated in El Paso. A few years ago we attended her 20 year high school reunion and the graduation rate is still 25%. The Federal, State and school district have spent millions on this school over the years without a significant increase in graduation rates. We toured the school and it was better than anything I or my kids ever attended.

I attended Catholic and public (government) schools. I look at the graduation rates of Catholic schools and how Catholic graduates perform in society. Maybe we should emulate the Catholic model. I will never forget a parent orientation meeting when my youngest son started attending Jesuit High School. The parents were given a two-page hand out. Father Zee, the principal, addressed the parents and said, “The Jesuits have been teaching for 500 years. We know what works, and we know what doesn’t work”. He held up his hand and said, ” the five fingers of knowledge are; theology, literature, math, science and history. As you move away from these, the value of education is diminished”.

A few weeks later I attended a parent orientation meeting for my other son who attended a public high school. We were given a fifty page hand out and the principal spent two hours telling us how the admisntration was complying with government rules and regulations.

Have a great and glorious day!

Tim Mattingly
Houston, TX

2 Ashley Garner { 11.07.09 at 3:00 pm }

I think that finances play a huge part in why people drop out of college. College is very stressful and if you have to deal with working a job outside of school and/or supporting children, then the load becomes too heavy and the only way to lighten it is to drop out of college because you can’t quit your job or your family!

3 Travis { 12.04.09 at 12:44 pm }

This: “Colleges and universities are businesses, and students are a cost item, while research is a profit center.”
Professors don’t care if a student gets it. I’ve had my fair share of craptacular professors who lack the patience or ability to teach. If you fail their course you’ll be back next semester $$ and if you don’t come back your socities problem not his.

4 David H { 12.15.09 at 6:13 pm }

“If only our educational experts could grasp that our country needs skilled workers …”

This struck a chord in me as I recall one of the discussions I had with other college students and some doctorate holders socially, on the topic of Associate or Vocational education. In CA apparently there is either little or none. I remember at the time being struck by how much pressure that should have put on colleges to do skill based education, but as you point out they are businesses and research institutions primarily, and outside of engineering, some science, computer information services, or accounting degrees/certs I did not see evidence of skill teaching. Rather, an accumulation of GED courses and people memorizing answers to textbooks written by the professor teaching the class who does research at the University and hasn’t had to do a job search in several years.

To this one point I have experience: “That issue is then exacerbated by education officials who continue to insist that all we must do is simply raise standards further…”

The differences between education ‘levels’ in the requirements Universities have was a personal barrier to me. On the one hand I did graduate, but the requirements for graduating with a bachelors are not the requirements needed to continue my education – they are in fact much greater. These seems the delicate point you are seeking, lowered requirements to make the graduation rates increased, with raised requirements to progression in the chosen field of study reducing drop outs. Imagine my surprise when my naive sensibilities and trust in my personal ‘academic counselor’ had created a two year gap in my education needs for Ph.D or even Masters course work! In my case, and in my degree, the raised barriers have left me with 7 years of my life dedicated to the approach of higher education and only a B.D which is considered theoretical (Economics) to show for it. I wonder how generally that separation exists for other degrees?

Thank you for writing this article.

5 Heather Andrews { 06.26.10 at 4:54 pm }

Dear Tim Mattingly – can you provide ME with a 50,000 a year job? That would be great! I sure can’t find one. And, I’m just about finished with my Bachelor’s degree. I am almost 39 years old. I am a single mother, and have worked my way through school while working full time and taking care of my daughter. I have decent math skills, excellent spelling and grammar skills, and I get paid less than most teenagers. Why am I losing out? What is going on? I have worked my butt off, and for what? No one even pays attention to me, nor do they take me seriously. There are people where I work, who are in very highly paid positions who call me for help ALL THE TIME, and do you know why? Because they can’t spell. They can’t find anything in our computer database, so they call ME. And I am one of the lowest paid people in the corporation. What am I missing? I feel like a complete joke. When will it be MY turn?

6 cesium { 10.29.10 at 4:24 pm }

@Tim: $50K/year is diddly-squat, AND there are literally millions of Indians with good english and math skills that would be happy to take that job for a lot less than $50K/year. Its a new age. The world is tightly integrated and will continue to rapidly become much more integrated. U.S. high school graduates are no longer competing with other U.S. high school graduates for jobs. They are competing against an international workforce willing to accept much lower wages. In order to provide Heather and others with high paying jobs, we need them to graduate from high school ready for college, and we need them to graduate from college with a diverse set of knowledge.

Yes, it’s unlikely we will ever get 100% of the population graduating in 4 years from college. But we damn well better get 80% of them graduating. Agriculture has been automated, and within 25 years, 1 generation, only 3% of the people will be able to work on their own farm. Manufacturing is being rapidly automated, and the coming generation is not going to move into manufacturing jobs. That leaves two kinds of jobs: local service jobs paying $25K/year (maid, mcdonalds, …), and knowledge jobs: searching for the next blockbuster drug, developing the next nano-material, programming computers, designing games, …

7 Maxene Brians { 01.19.11 at 4:21 am }

Finances, Race, Teachers, Poor Preparation, and student’s misconceptions of college are all fine and dandy reasons for dropping out of college, but there is something we’ve forgotten. I am a college student and I am making plans to drop out. I had a 4.6 GPA on the 5.0 scale at my high school. I took 9 Advanced Placement classes and passed them all with a 4 or 5. I was involved in clubs, and organizations. My mother and father both graduated from their colleges with masters’ degrees. I have straight A’s at my university. I am involved in multiple student organizations. I am also planning to drop out? Why? The answer is simple: I have not learned a thing at my $40,000 school after my freshman year other than my social security number. I was taught that people go to college to learn. If I have read all the books required in my English 101 class during my sophomore year of high school, why must I pay 5,000 dollars a class for that same education? If I’m supposed to waste another three years of my life for a glorified piece of paper know as a degree without any learning, or hard work behind it then I might as well work at McDonalds. At least I could learn how to cook and manage a small business. Parents pressure their kids into schools and go in debt for them saying they will never have a decent job unless they go to college. If that is how this business works I’m happy to boycott. When college can teach me more than I’ve taught myself I will be the first in line. I want to pay for an education, not a degree.

8 Susie Watts { 02.09.11 at 12:29 pm }

As a college consultant, I think this article is a real eye-opener. It is not that I was unaware of this information, it is how incredibly complicated it all is. I try to help students find colleges that are committed to seeing their students graduate in four years. To me this is a very important for families to consider when they are doing a college search. I know that many older students have full time jobs and family responsibilities, but for the typical 18-20 year old, this is not usually the case. There should be no excuses for them to drag out their college educations.

College Direction
Denver, Colorado

9 wayne { 02.15.11 at 8:41 am }

I have went to Boston public schools before, and now im at a 4 yr university. i’m turning 25, took a few yrs off after i got myAA, and i transferred to a 4 yr university last yr. I will get my BA this august.

the freshmens at my dorm, I can totally see why so many of them drop out. my school has a 72% retention rate for freshmens, so roughly 3 out of 10 will leave, and about a 47% grad rate after 6 years (21% after 4 yrs) . Lots of freshmens here expect to come here, have fun, party, get drunk, have the best times of their lives, and magically in 4 years, they and 100% of their friends will graduate, have a degree and make loads of money. it doesnt happen that way, so far after a quarter I have seen some dropped out, and some transferred.

as a 24 year old, i tell them to study, and tell them the facts about the 21% grad rate here in 4 years, literally only 2 out of 10 students will get a degree on time. ALL i repeat ALL of them tell me that this wont happen to them because they are smart, other people are stupid, and they just go on with partying and not studying, while I study and concentrate. its sad to see, but then again when I was 18 or 19 years old, I feel invincible too, nothing bad will happen to me, and dont take things as serious.

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