Decreasing graduation completion rates in the United States

Decreasing graduation completion rates in the United States

The Graduation completion rate is the measure reflecting the amount of students who complete their graduation and receive a degree from an educational institution. The drop-out rate is the measure reflecting the amount of students who disengage with the educational institutions they are enrolled in. Those measures are calculated by The National Center for Education Statistics(NCES), the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education.The US Department of Education - Institute of Education Sciences and the National Center for Education Statistics use those measures to analyze the success or the failure of the students and of the American educational system.

Graduation rate has become a growing concern in the United States as it has been decreasing over the past decades.[1] High-school dropout and College dropout affect the completion rate as well as the system at large. The percentage of dropouts among 16- to 24-year-olds has shown some decreases over the past 20 years.[2] However, the substantial growth in college enrollment among high school graduates has not been matched with a comparable expansion in college degree attainment.[3] The decrease of completion rate among college students has economical, educational and political implications. At a time of historic budget shortfalls, increasing the college completion rate has been a challenge in the United States. To help colleges and universities in particular improve rates of degree completion, states try to find more efficient ways to spend.



Historical background

Degree completion has been decreasing since 1970. Bound, Lovenheim and Turner[3] studied in 2009 why the college completion rate declined. Their main explanations of the decreasing rate are the changes in student preparation and the collegiate resources. The authors explain that between 1970 and 1999, post-secondary institutions saw a significant increase in enrollments and, at the same time, a decrease in college completion. “Partly as a consequence of the substantial increase in the college wage premium since 1980, a much higher fraction of high school graduates enter college today than they did a quarter century ago. However, the rise in the fraction of high school graduates attending college has not been met by a proportional increase in the fraction who finish.[4]

A study by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California underlines that in 1994, fewer college students were completing their college in four years than in 1984. The completion rate within four years was 36.4%, whereas it was 46.7% in the late 1960s. The degree completion when the students were allowed to graduate in six years was 58.8% in 1994.[5] "The fact that these public-private differences decline somewhat when six-year rates are used suggests that students in the public colleges and universities are taking longer to complete their degrees," says Professor Alexander W. Astin, co-author of the study and Director of the Higher Education Research Institute. The current trend is of longer time spent to graduate than it was 50 years ago.

Main causes

The main causes of the decreasing college completion rate are the lower preparation level of the students and the small allocation of resources dedicated to instruction and institutional choices, according to Bound, Lovenheim and Turner[3] and their study on "Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree". The resources allocated to institutions haven't been enough to offset the increase of new students enrollment in higher education institutions.

The abstract of the study “Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree ” by John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, Sarah Turner (2009) says:

“Persistent increases in the wage premium for college graduates in recent decades have not been matched by gains in collegiate attainment. Indeed, the proportion of students entering college who receive degrees has slowed while time to completion of the baccalaureate degree has increased markedly among college graduates in the United States over the last three decades. Using data from the NLS72 and NELS:88 longitudinal surveys, we find that while enrollment rates have increased disproportionately among those students less well prepared for college, these students are unlikely to complete BA degrees resulting in an overall decline in the completion rate. In contrast, we find that changes in the composition of the college going population can account for essentially none of the observed increase in time to degree. The increase in time to degree is localized among those who begin postsecondary education at public colleges outside the most selective universities. We produce evidence that increased stratification in U.S. higher education and reductions in collegiate resources outside the top-tier of institutions are a primary component of the explanation for the observed increases in time to degree, with increases in time to degree relatively concentrated in states that have experienced rapid growth in the size of the college-age population and dilution in resources per student at many public colleges. Further, evidence of increased hours of employment among students is consistent with students working more to meet rising college costs thereby negatively affecting the length of time it takes them to complete college [6]”.

Current situation

The US Census Bureau in 2009 reported that, nationally, 9% of 18-24 year-olds and only 27.5% of these 25 years and older had a bachelor's degree or more. Massachusetts is the state where the completion rate is the highest with 37.8% of citizens 25 years and older having a bachelor degree. In West Virginia, the completion rate is the lowest with only 17,1%[7] of the population having bachelor's degrees.

In his 2010 State of the Union Address, President Obama said that he wants the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. To reach this "big goal", American college graduates should increase by 50%, adding at least 8 million additional graduates. Obama said that increasing college completion rate is important to increase economic opportunities and lower social costs for individuals.[8]

Early colleges

Early colleges have lower drop-outs rate than community colleges and universities.The early college high school programs provide students the opportunity to receive a high school diploma and an associate's degree, or up to two years of credit toward a bachelor's degree, in four years. Students take a mixture of high school and college classes in order to obtain their high school diploma and associate's degree. Each early college high school is a public school and open to any residents in the school district. Early colleges have the advantage of allowing student an alternative to the traditional access to diplomas.

Community colleges

Community colleges have the mission to provide better access to higher education and graduation for under-served populations. Greater access and success in post-secondary education is a primary element for decreasing income inequalities and increasing the productivity of America's workers.[9] In 2008, 46% of all undergraduate students in the US attended community colleges.[10] Long and Kurlaender studied the graduation differences between community colleges and universities and found that community college students were 14.5% less likely to complete their degree within 9 years as opposed to students in universities.[11]


In universities, efforts are made on targeting the “at-risk” students to avoid drop outs, and creating aligned programs for better coordination between high schools and universities.[12] Successful transfer to 4-year institutions is an issue that concerns every higher educational institution. Academic preparation in high school and solid coordination with those institutions are highly suitable for improving graduation rates.[13]

Economic implications

The education requirements for the jobs in 2018 are planned to be for 10% less than high school, for 28% a high school degree, for 17% associate's degree, for 12% some college, for 23% a bachelor's degree and for 10% a graduate degree.[14]

A study conducted by the College Board, “Education Pay,” shows that level of graduation significantly affects earnings. Earnings tend to increase as education level increases. The numbers show that with no high school degree, the average income is $24,300. With a bachelor's degree, it raises up to $55,700. With a master's degree, the average income is 67,300$.[15]

Public policies

Organizations and associations such as Lumina Foundation for Education and Delta Cost Project study how to reallocate the limited resources in ways that can increase college completion rates. Studies suggest that in order to respond to this issue of low graduation rates, states should focus on long term policy rather than short-term fixes. The re-examination of how resources are allocated would help to improve the higher education system and avoid drop outs. Several studies have been conducted in order to guide policies toward better ways to manage resources and drive expenditures.

Webber and Ehrenberg studied the overall impact and the institutional-level impact based on institutional average SAT scores and the average federal Pell Grant given to students at the institution. They found that an increase in expenditures on instruction and student services resulted in higher education rates. The reallocation of resources from instruction to student services would result in a consequent increase in graduation rates. The researchers underline that the institutions with students academically unprepared or economically disadvantaged have interests in investing in student services, even before investing in instruction, if they want to see their graduation rate increase.[16]

On March 22, 2011, Vice-President Joe Biden declared [17] “Right now we've got an education system that works like a funnel when we need it to work like a pipeline... We have to make the same commitment to getting folks across the graduation stage that we did to getting them into the register's office. The dreams and skills of our college graduates will pave the way to a bright economic future for our nation”.[18]

A New College Completion Tool Kit[19] has been developed by the federal government to help the governors and state governments develop better strategies for higher-education promotion. The solutions proposed by the College Completion Tool Kit urge government to set up financial incentives to increase completion rate. The federal government advises to base funding formulas on enrollment rate but also on performance measures and outcome indicators. In order to improve institutions of higher education, states and public policies should:

  • strengthen high school academic rigor
  • make “college prep” the default track in high school
  • create opportunities for high school students to earn college credits
  • develop and implement aggressive outreach strategies to reengage adult students who have received some college training short of certificate on degree attainment but dropped out
  • restructure remedial education to meet individual student needs successfully
  • restructure post-secondary education delivery to ensure that students complete their degrees in a timely manner

The case of Louisiana

The Lumina Foundation for Education proposes solutions to increase college completion rates and to meet President Obama's graduation goal.[20] The strategies highlighted by The Lumina Foundation for Education are to increase the rate at which students complete college and to provide ways for adults in the workforce to return to college to complete degrees.[21]

In Louisiana, the college attainment rate is 27%.[22] In order to reach the "big goal", Louisiana would need to increase its annual degree production by 8.2%. The Lumina Foundation for Education advises some strategies:

  • to target Louisiana residents who have completed some college without earning a degree
  • to target parishes and regions in greater needs and to focus the state's effort there

Louisiana's challenge is to increase college students' success for working adults, low income students, first generation students and minority students.[23]


The graduation completion rate is contested. The Chronicle of Higher Education said in its January 2010 issue that this rate fails to count students who take a long time to complete their degrees.[24] They qualify the rate as “an incomplete measure of institutional quality. The data describes a minority of all enrolled students, counting only full-time, first-time students who enroll in the fall and complete degrees within "150 percent of normal time"—six years for students seeking bachelor's degrees. The graduation rate excludes students who transfer to other colleges and earn degrees there. It also omits students who transfer in and graduate. By one estimate, the rate ignores up to 50 percent of all enrolled students”.[25]


  1. ^ Jeffrey Brainard, Andrea Fuller (2010)
  2. ^ Digest of Education Statistics, 2010, Introduction p.1
  3. ^ a b c John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, Sarah Turner (2009)
  4. ^ John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, Sarah Turner (2009),
  5. ^ Alexander W. Astin, Leticia Osegura (2001)
  6. ^ John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, Sarah Turner (2009),
  7. ^ US Census Bureau 2009
  8. ^ The Progress of Education Reform 2007 : Dropout prevention (2007)
  9. ^ Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Ben Benarke
  10. ^ Report from College Board's National Commission on Community College (2008)
  11. ^ Bridget Terry Long, Michal Kurlaender (2008)
  12. ^ Davis Jenkins (2007)
  13. ^ Josipa Roksa,Juan Carlos Calciagno (2008)
  14. ^ College Completion Tool Kit (2010)
  15. ^ Education Pay (2010)
  16. ^ Douglas A Webber, Ronald G Ehrenberg (2009)
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ President Obama State of the Union 2011
  21. ^ A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education - How and why Americans much achieve a "big goal" for college attainment, The Lumina Foundation for Education, September 2010, p.2.
  22. ^ A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education - How and why Americans much achieve a "big goal" for college attainment, The Lumina Foundation for Education, September 2010, p.49.
  23. ^ A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education - How and why Americans much achieve a "big goal" for college attainment, The Lumina Foundation for Education, September 2010, p.50.
  24. ^ The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2010
  25. ^


  • Thomas D. Snyder, Sally A. Dillow, Digest of Education Statistics 2010,National Center for Education Statistics, Education Statistics Services Institute, American Institutes for Research, April 2010
  • John Bound, Michael Lovenheim, Sarah Turner, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working paper 15566, December 2009, "Understanding Decrease in Completion Rates and Increase in Time to Degree"
  • Alexander W. Astin, Leticia Osegura, Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities, 2001
  • The Progress of Education Reform 2007 : Dropout prevention, August 2007
  • College Completion Tool Kit, United States Department of Education, Washington, D.C., March 2010
  • Education Pay, The College Board, 2010
  • Davis Jenkins, Community Colleges Journal of Research and Practice, Vol 13 #12, 2007
  • Josipa Roksa and Juan Carlos Calciagno, Community College Research Center, Working paper #13, June 2008
  • Report from College Board's National Commission on Community College, 2008
  • Bridget Terry Long and Michal KurlaenderU, National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2008
  • Douglas A Webber, Ronald G Ehrenberg, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working paper 15216, August 2009
  • Jeffrey Brainard, Andrea Fuller, Graduation Rates Fall at One-Third of 4-Year Colleges, The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2010
  • A Stronger Nation Through Higher Education - How and why Americans much achieve a "big goal" for college attainment, The Lumina Foundation for Education, September 2010

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