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College Completion Declining, Taking Longer, Study Shows

College Completion Declining, Taking Longer, Study Shows


Fewer students today are completing college in four years than was the case a decade ago, according to a new national study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA.

“Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities,” prepared by education professor Dr. Alexander W. Astin and doctoral student Leticia Oseguera, found that among freshmen that entered baccalaureate-granting colleges in fall 1994, only 36.4 percent were able to complete their bachelor’s within four years. That compares to 39.9 percent a decade earlier and 46.7 percent in the late 1960s. The degree-completion rate jumps by nearly two-thirds, to 58.8 percent, for students taking six years to complete college, and to 61.6 percent when including those enrolled after six years are counted as “completers.”

The data also shows degree-completion rates varying substantially across race and gender lines, as well as 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, the differences between racial groups are maintained. Within most racial groups, women have higher six-year degree-completion rates than men do. American Indian students are the exception, with the rate for men slightly higher (43.9 percent versus 41.1 percent for women).

The data also show wide variation between institutions in four-year degree-completion rates, 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) also is 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).

Not surprisingly, the level of pre-college academic preparation a student has also weighs significantly on his/her chances of completing college in four or six years. 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 1300, 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.

“These 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 institution’s students when they first enroll,” Astin says.

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.

For a copy of “Degree Attainment Rates at American Colleges and Universities,” call (310) 825-1925 or send an e-mail to [email protected].

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