More Is Less: Extra Time Does Little to Boost College Grad Rates

Charts You Can Trust | December 21, 2010
Related Issue(s): Graduation Rates, Higher Education
Chart from "More Is Less", Click to Download Analysis

Since the early 1990s, the federal government has required colleges to track and report graduation rates for all first-time, full-time degree- or certificate-seeking students.

The most widely used figure tracks students for 150 percent of the time they expect to take to graduate. For bachelor's degree programs, students are considered graduates if they finish in six years; for two-year colleges, within three years; and for students in one-year certificate programs, 18 months. The extended time frame makes a significant difference in graduation rates. Just 36 percent of students pursuing bachelor's degrees finish within four years; after six years, the rate is 57 percent. Among two-year schools, tracking students for that third year boosts graduation rates from 18 percent to 31 percent.

But some higher education leaders still claim that the measurement window is too short and that the statistics present a biased and incomplete picture. The figures, for instance, do not count students that transfer, are part-time, or that do not start college in the fall.

These critics also point to the presence of thousands of students who finish college eventually, just not in time to be counted. When asked by the New York Times in 2006 about Northeastern Illinois University's six-year graduation rate of 16.9 percent, then-President Salme Harju Steinberg argued that students did finish but needed more time to graduate. She said that students came in unprepared and then had to balance academics with family and work responsibilities. "That it takes another year or two years longer should be a mark of distinction," she said.

In 2008, the federal government moved to extend the graduation time frame even further, offering critics a chance to verify their claims. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act that year required schools to start reporting graduation rates at 200 percent of time enrolled—as long as eight years or four years depending on whether a four-year or two-year institution.

In More Is Less: Extra Time Does Little to Boost College Grad Rates, Policy Analyst Ben Miller presents, for the first time, a better picture of long-term college completion trends. His analysis:

  • Takes a closer look at how institutions with low graduation rates fare under the new time frame, since these are the schools that have been most critical of the current regulations;
  • Highlights some institutions that do see significant gains with the additional time; and
  • Examines the impact, if any, of this new timeframe on the President’s goal of leading the world in college degree completion.