How to Evaluate a College’s Graduation Rate

March 9, 2021

Living in a society that is hyper-focused on selective college admissions, the moment a student receives an acceptance letter from their dream school can feel the victorious end of a journey, the moment when the film credits roll and a triumphant score begins to play. Of course, there’s also that small matter of the next four (or six) years of study and the acquisition of that frequently elusive bachelor’s degree. Yeah, that’s pretty darn important as well, and some institutions do a superior job of assisting a large percentage of their undergraduates across the finish line than others. The purpose of this blog is to look at how to effectively use available statistics to assess how your prospective colleges fare with this fundamental task.

How to compare graduation rates

One glance at our list of the colleges with the highest graduation rates, and you see a Who’s Who of highly-selective schools that are among the most prestigious in the country. Vanderbilt, Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame all see 90%+ of their entering first-year students strut across the graduation stage four years later. At 85% or better, you’ll find Ivies like Penn, Cornell, and Yale as well as premier liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, and Pomona.

Turning our attention to the bottom of the list, you’ll encounter schools like San Jose State University (15%), Florida Atlantic University (27%), and the University of Houston (32%). So, is fair to say that these universities do a terrible job at graduating their own students while the aforementioned elite institutions do a spectacular job? Not entirely. To give a fair analysis, we need to look at what type of students are entering each school. After all, is it really a surprise that the upper-echelon universities that only admit students with straight ‘A’s and 1500+ SATs see most of those students succeed academically once admitted?

Inputs & outputs, apples and oranges

To make more useful comparisons that will be helpful to your actual college search, you need to look at graduation rates in context and compare institutions with similar inputs. What do we mean by “inputs,”? Simple: the academic bona fides of enrolled students. Given the correlation between success in high school and success in college, it’s hardly a surprise that highly-competitive schools that only take highly-accomplished applicants perform better in terms of graduation rate. What is more useful than comparing Princeton to Florida Atlantic is comparing each to other schools of their respective ilk—institutions attended by students with similar academic profiles. Then, we are truly comparing apples to apples and not just mistakenly measuring inputs.

Let’s look an example of three public universities with fairly comparable inputs:

School Name Acceptance Rate Average GPA Average SAT
University of Delaware 68% 3.8 1266
University of Colorado—Boulder 78% 3.7 1251
Michigan State University 71% 3.8 1217


All three schools are moderately selective, admitting students with an average GPA in the A- range and mean standardized test scores around the 80th percentile of all test-takers. Now, let’s look at their 4-year graduation rates:

School Name 4-Year Graduation Rate
University of Delaware 71%
University of Colorado—Boulder 46%
Michigan State University 56%


4-year graduation rate versus 6-year graduation rates

A deeper dive takes us into the world of 4-year versus 6-year graduation rates. Expanding our data fields to include both variables can grant us another layer of understanding. Let’s again compare the same three institutions, this time examining 6-year graduation rates.

School Name 6-Year Graduation Rate
University of Delaware 81%
University of Colorado—Boulder 69%
Michigan State University 81%


As you can see, while Delaware and MSU were separated by 15 points in 4-year graduation rate, their 6-year figure is identical. CU-Boulder still lags behind, but their rate rises to a more respectable level. A review of all of this data, in its entirety, allows us to feel comfortable saying that out of these three schools, the University of Delaware does the best job of facilitating the on-time graduation of its students and, while MSU lags behind in that area, they are equal in helping Spartans earn their degrees in the long term. CU-Boulder pretty clearly does the poorest job of ensuring that its students go on to earn a diploma of the three.

Other factors that impact graduation rates

In addition to the academic credentials of the incoming class (SAT/ACT score, high school GPA, etc.), other variables have been shown to correlate with eventual graduation rate. One such factor is the percentage of the student body that resides on campus versus those who commute. Research has repeatedly found that residential students tend to become more academically and socially integrated into their collegiate communities which leads to greater persistence and ultimately, higher graduation rates. Another factor is that students from low-income schools, many of who may be first-generation college attendees, have a statistically lower college graduation rate than more affluent peers. Therefore, the demographic make-up of given school may correlate to graduation rate, as schools continue to strive toward increased equity and additional supports for students in underrepresented groups.

We won’t get into every variable that can impact a given university’s graduation rate, but we did want to communicate to our readers that a graduation rate is a cake made up a many ingredients, not all of which are visible on the surface.

Retention rates

While the focal point of this blog are graduation rates, we also wanted to mention the value in exploring each prospective school’s retention rate—a figure that represents the percentage of students from a given freshman cohort who are still enrolled at the same college at the start of their sophomore year.

Most colleges roll out the red carpet for arriving first-year students each late summer/fall. Campus teems with excitement as wide-eyed freshmen move into their dorms, meet roommates, and attend ice cream socials. Yet, one year later, somewhere between 1% and 40% of these students do not end up returning for sophomore year. Where a certain school falls within that ridiculously wide range of outcomes has a lot to with the aforementioned variables related to student achievement. However, differences in retention rate between schools that attract a similar caliber of freshman have a lot to do with the supports they put in place for first-year students. Structured orientation programs, special seminar courses, faculty mentorship, and campus-wide efforts to get freshman to become active and integrated members of the school community are all research-based ways to improve retention.

College Transitions’ key takeaways

  • Remember, a straight comparison of two very different schools’ (e.g. a highly-selective college vs. a less-selective college) grad rates will not be very enlightening.
  • Inputs (the caliber of students entering) must be looked at in addition to outputs (graduation rate).
  • Among institutions with a similar demographic makeup, a higher 4-year graduation rate can be indicative of superior advising, counseling, mentorship, career services, and first-year programs.
  • A high freshman-to-sophomore retention rate can be indicative of the adoption and implementation of research-based best practices for first-year students like an orientation program, first-year seminars, and the creation of living/learning communities.