What Percent of College Students Graduate in 4 Years?

February 14, 2022

The “four-year degree” is quickly becoming a misnomer.  As of 2020-21, only 41% of American college students graduate from college in four years. Further, the majority of colleges and universities in the United States now possess four-year graduation rates below 60%, including many competitive, flagship institutions like Texas A&M University (59%), University of Oregon (57%), University of Colorado (50%), University of Alabama (52%) and the University of Arizona (49%).  It’s discouraging that so few people complete their undergraduate education “on time,” but before attributing our country’s dismal graduation rates to the students themselves it’s important to consider how schools can impact degree attainment.  Colleges with higher than expected graduation rates are likely to possess certain programs or attributes that support student persistence and success.  In order to avoid wasting time and money during your undergraduate years, choose a college that offers some or all of the following:

A First-Year Experience

The first year of college is critical to one’s graduation prospects because it sets the stage for undergraduate achievement…or failure. A bad first semester or year can move some to leave college before they ever get a chance to reap the benefits of higher learning. In an effort to improve first-year retention and reduce dropout rates, a number of institutions have developed first-year experiences that help students integrate into campus life and college learning. First-year experiences are usually offered in the form of a seminar, residential experience, and/or community-based project, and teach students the academic and non-academic skills needed for college success.  Over the past decade, research has shown that first-year experiences improve undergraduate performance, foster peer connections, and increase graduation rates.

Mandatory academic advising

The medley of degree pathways, course offerings, and academic requirements at many of today’s colleges is likely to confound even the most focused students, which is why good academic advising is now essential.  Academic advisors work with students to devise effective, clear-cut academic plans and help them to navigate through the red tape that prevents many others from graduating on time.  Any strong academic advising program should consist of mandatory and regular meetings between student and advisor.  If you want to determine whether your prospective schools have made academic advising a priority, ask each institution to specify when, how, and how often students interact with their advisors.

A challenging environment

Researchers have discovered that many students fail to complete their college education not because the work is too hard—but because it’s too easy.  Although it may seem counterintuitive, students attending colleges that offer a challenging curriculum are more likely to graduate and to complete their degree on time.  This is not to suggest that everyone enroll at a Stanford or Swarthmore; relatively few students have the credentials or ability to be admitted into and thrive at such institutions.  This only means that students should choose a college and curriculum that’s highly challenging for them and where they are likely to engage peers of similar academic ability. A study published by the team at College Transitions shows that many students aim too low when choosing a college.  Their follow up analysis suggests that students are more likely to graduate in a normal time frame if they attend institutions that are commensurate with their academic qualifications.

A four-year graduation guarantee

Finally, it’s important to mention that in addition to offering the above, some colleges are actually beginning to “put their money where their mouth is.” A small but growing number of institutions now offer a four-year graduation guarantee.  Schools offering a four-year guarantee publish a list of achievable guidelines that, if followed, will permit students to complete their degree in no more than four years. If a student adheres to the prescribed guidelines of the graduation guarantee program and still does not graduate, the college will allow the student to complete the remainder of his/her education tuition-free.  Elizabethtown College (PA), Buffalo State University (NY), and DePauw University (IN) are just a few reputable colleges that now offer four-year guarantee programs.

Final thoughts

After all is said and done, your college years may turn out to be some of your best, but they are likely to be some of your most expensive as well.  With tuition rates sky high, time is indeed money (and a lot of it) in higher education.  Although extending your college career may seem attractive in theory, increased debt, loss of salary, and lack of job opportunities will eventually prove otherwise. So, choose a college that is committed to your timely graduation.  We promise your wallet and career will thank you for it.

College Transitions recently published a list of graduation rates by institution. You can find the list here.