Sixty Percent of All College Freshmen Do Not Graduate in Four Years

By Sam Rosensohn

Every fall approximately one million high school graduates begin their undergraduate careers at four-year colleges and universities in anticipation of earning a bachelor’s degree.

Fewer than four in 10 students graduate in four years, while just about six in 10 graduate in six years, according to a new report by The Education Trust, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C.

“Too many students – far too many students – who start college never finish. The raw numbers are staggering. Fewer than four in 10 will graduate in four years,” Kevin Carey wrote in a recent report entitled, One Step from the Finish Line. .

Jay Mathews, a top-notch education columnist for The Washington Post, brought the new report to my attention last week.

Mathews, who wrote the book Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College that is Best for You, was quick to note that the very select schools he wrote about have six-year graduation rates that hover over 95 percent.

But since most of our kids, my son Zac at the top of the list, will not be applying to Princeton, Brown or Harvard, I thought it would be of interest to you to note what percentage of the freshmen graduate with a degree in four years at the colleges you’re considering.

The user-friendly Web tool, College Results Online, found at, allows users to select a four-year college or university and see how its graduation rates compare with similar institutions that serve similar student populations.

It also allows users to examine graduation rates broken down by students’ race, ethnicity, and gender.

This information, which only recently became available to the public, reveals significant gaps in graduation rates between white students, and students of color at most colleges and universities.

“It turns out that practices within colleges and universities also have a big impact on student success,” Carey wrote in another report for the Education Trust entitled, Choosing to Improve.

“Some institutions, year in and year out, manage to graduate significantly more of their students than other institutions that are otherwise quite similar. Similar students, similar mission, but very different results,” wrote Carey, director of policy research at the Education Trust.

So I thought to take a look at a couple of area schools. The one we’ll review is Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Approximately 30 percent of the students who enroll as freshmen graduate in four years, according to College Results. Thirteen percent more of that class graduates in five years, and another four percent of that class graduates in six years. If you do the math you’ll note that just under 50 percent of all of the students who enrolled as freshmen graduate in six years.

Approximately 40 percent of the men who start as freshmen at Roger Williams graduate in six years, while 57 percent of the women graduate in that same period of time.

College Results compared Roger Williams’ stats with Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland where 71 percent of the students graduated in six years. The other two comparative schools Meredith College in North Carolina, and Elmhurst in Illinois both graduated approximately 71 percent of the students who entered as freshmen in six years.

If you find the charts hard to decipher, pick up the phone and call the Education Trust Fund at 202-293-1217 and ask someone to walk you through the data.

For people who want to learn more about a college before they sign that first gargantuan tuition check, College Results is another tool to employ. I know I would want to know why 30 percent of the incoming freshmen didn’t graduate in six years, or why considerably more women graduated from a particular school than men.

There’s a lot to glean from this site, which you could spend hours cruising, because it offers a host of additional information about graduation rate gaps, student related expenditures, grants and SAT scores. You could pose your initial questions to admission officers electronically, and, while you have their ear, don’t hesitate to ask about meritorious money, scholarships or financial aid.

Carey pointed out that over the past 30 years scholars have made an effort to better grasp why institutions graduate students at the rate which they do, and the research points to three critical matters:

  • It matters whether institutions focus on getting their students engaged and connected to the campus, particularly in the critical freshmen year.
  • It matters whether there is a genuine emphasis on the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning, because academic success and degree completion go hand in hand.
  • It matters whether administrators and faculty monitor student progress, taking advantage of new data systems to tease out patterns of student success. Successful schools use that information not only to help individual students but also to make needed changes in policies and practice.

“For far too long, we have blamed low graduation rates only on the students. This sort of thinking has led us to believe that there is nothing that colleges and universities could do to help more students graduate,” Carey said.

“This thinking is dead wrong,” he added. “Some schools are doing a whole lot better than other, similar schools in serving their students.”

I’d make it my business to use this site and to consider the graduation rate when you start to think seriously about a school.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at