Fewer college students today are completing college in four years than was the case a decade ago, according to a new national study just released by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
Among freshmen who entered baccalaureate-granting colleges in fall 1994, only 36.4 percent were able to complete their bachelorâ€™s degrees within four years, compared to 39.9 percent a decade earlier and 46.7 percent in the late 1960s. The degree-completion rate jumps by nearly two-thirds â€” to 58.8 percent â€” if students are allowed six years to complete college, and to 61.6 percent if those who are still enrolled after six years are counted as â€ścompleters.â€?
Degree-completion rates vary substantially according to the race and sex of the student and especially by the type of institution attended. The highest four-year completion rates are enjoyed by Asian-American (38.8 percent) and white (37.6 percent) students, while the lowest rates occur among underrepresented groups: Mexican Americans (21.3 percent), American Indians (21.6 percent), Puerto Rican Americans (23.6 percent) and blacks (28.9 percent).
Four-year completion rates are higher for women (39.7 percent) than for men (32.6 percent). Although these rates increase by 20 percent to 25 percent for each racial or gender group when six-year completion is considered, group differences are maintained. Within each racial group, women have higher six-year degree-completion rates than men do, except among American Indian students, where the rate for men is slightly higher (43.9 percent versus 41.1 percent for women).
Four-year degree-completion rates for individual institutions vary widely, from a high of 89 percent to a low of 1 percent. Six-year rates range from 96 percent to 18 percent. Private institutions of all types consistently show higher retention rates than do public colleges and universities, regardless of the retention measure used. The highest four-year completion rate (69.1 percent) is found among students attending private universities, whereas the lowest rate (24.3 percent) occurs among students at public colleges. The four-year completion rate for students at public universities (28.1 percent) is also substantially lower than the four-year rates for students enrolled at all types of private four-year colleges: Roman Catholic (46.4 percent), other religiously affiliated (51 percent) and independent (56.3 percent).
â€śThe 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,â€? said Alexander W. Astin, co-author of the study and director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.
The chances of completing college in four or six years vary widely according to the studentâ€™s level of academic preparation. Those who earn an A or A-plus grade average in high school have four- and six-year completion rates of 58.2 percent and 77.5 percent, respectively, compared to rates of only 8 percent (four-year) and 20 percent (six-year) for students who earn C averages.
Similar differences are found with scores on standardized college admissions tests. Among students whose composite score on the SAT is at least 1,300, four- and six-year completion rates are 62.3 percent and 76.5 percent, respectively, compared to only 18.2 percent and 39.8 percent for students whose composite score is less than 800.
The largest differences are observed when school grades and test scores are combined; students with A averages and scores of 1300 or above have four- and six-year completion rates of 68.9 percent and 82.6 percent, respectively, compared to 7.8 percent and 20.4 percent for students with C averages and test scores below 800.
â€śThese data suggest that it would be unwise, and possibly misleading, to compare the raw degree-completion rates of different institutions without taking into account the level of academic preparation of each institutionâ€™s students when they first enroll,â€? Astin said.
For this reason, the report provides tables that allow individual colleges and universities to compute an â€śexpectedâ€? degree-completion rate based on the academic preparation and other characteristics of their students at the time they first enroll. When adjustments are made for these expected retention rates, institutional differences diminish substantially.
For example, although the actual four-year rates of private universities are more than 40 percent higher than those of the public colleges (67.1 percent versus 24.3 percent), this difference diminishes to about 15 percent when expected rates are taken into account. Thus, when the actual degree-completion rates of different types of institutions are compared after adjusting for expected rates, four-year rates of public colleges and universities fall only 11 percent and 15 percent, respectively, below their expected rates, and the actual rates of different types of private institutions are between 2 percent and 6 percent higher than their expected rates. When six-year rates are used, the actual and expected rates for public institutions differ by only 5 percent.
â€śThese results suggest that students who choose a public over a private institution will run a slightly greater risk not only of not completing their bachelorâ€™s degree, but also of taking longer to complete that degree,â€? Astin said.
Academic preparation also helps to explain many of the differences in degree-completion rates among racial groups. The relatively low six-year completion rate for black students, for example, appears to be entirely attributable to their lower level of academic preparation.
The study is based on 56,818 students who entered 262 four-year colleges and universities in fall 1994 and whose degree attainment and enrollment status was determined in fall 2000. Results were statistically adjusted to reflect the entire population of freshmen entering baccalaureate-granting institutions in fall 2000.
The full report, â€śDegree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities,â€? prepared by Alexander W. Astin and Leticia Oseguera, is available from the Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA. Call (310) 825-1925 or e-mail email@example.com.
One of 11 professional schools at UCLA, the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies consists of two academic departments, the Department of Education and the Department of Information Studies. The Graduate School of Education was founded in 1939 and was UCLAâ€™s first professional school. The Graduate School of Library Service was founded in 1958. The two schools merged in 1994, forming the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. UCLA is the only major research university in the country that combines departments of education and information studies.
The Graduate School of Education and Information Studies shares its findings with practicing educators and information professionals through classes, seminars and workshops offered at UCLA and in the community, and through reports, studies and articles featured in publications nationwide.