Besides failing to count students who take a long time to complete their degrees, the graduation rate is in other respects an incomplete measure of institutional quality. The data describe a minority of all enrolled students, counting only full-time, first-time students who enroll in the fall and complete degrees within “150 percent of normal time”—six years for students seeking bachelor’s degrees. The graduation rate excludes students who transfer to other colleges and earn degrees there. It also omits students who transfer in and graduate. By one estimate, the rate ignores up to 50 percent of all enrolled students.
What’s more, the graduation rate doesn’t measure how much students actually learn. Nor does it show how well colleges are helping academically underprepared students to succeed.
Even so, despite its methodological shortcomings, the rate is the primary, publicly available, uniform metric that describes how well colleges are serving their students.
The picture it paints is not pretty. Aside from the institutions where rates have declined, growth has been modest at best. The median graduation rate among four-year colleges increased by approximately two percentage points, to about 53 percent, from 2003 to 2008. The rate dropped at nearly 500 four-year institutions during that period. Among colleges where graduation rates were below average in 2003, a similar pattern of slow growth and some declines also held.
An institution’s graduation rate can change over time for many reasons, and colleges have more control over some than others. In interviews on and around the University of Akron’s campus in November, students who had stopped pursuing bachelor’s degrees offered a variety of reasons.