Similar Selectivity, Dissimilar Graduates

Institutions that admit students of similar caliber do not graduate them in comparable numbers, new report finds.
June 3, 2009

Graduation rates vary dramatically among colleges and universities with similar levels of selectivity, a new report from the American Enterprise Institute reveals. And it’s calling out the underachievers and lauding the exemplars by name.

The report compiles the federal government’s six-year graduation rate for all the four-year undergraduate institutions in the United States and ranks them in subcategories based on their admissions selectivity. Aside from some brief analysis of the data provided, the highlight of the report is a series of top- and bottom-ten lists of institutional graduation rates among college and universities “that have similar admissions standards and admit students with similar track records and test scores."

Other education scholars have conducted similar research to the report just relesed by AEI. For example, Kevin Carey, research and policy manager of Education Sector, outlined comparable data in a column last year for Inside Higher Ed.

The six levels of selectivity cited in the report are those defined by Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges. The categories are noncompetitive, less competitive, competitive, very competitive, highly competitive and most competitive. A plurality of four-year students in the United States, nearly 42 percent, attend institutions that are considered competitive.

Percentage of Enrolled Students by Selectivity Category

Barron's Selectivity Noncompetitive Less Competitive Competitive Very Competitive Highly Competitive Most Competitive
Percent of Students 4% 8.8% 41.5% 24.9% 12.9% 7.9%

Student Right-to-Know graduation data was used with the caveat that it only represents “full-time, first-time, degree-seeking students.” Though this only equates to roughly a 25 percent of all full-time students enrolled in higher education in the United States, the report argues that it is the “only common metric available for comparing graduation rates across the nation’s array of institutions of higher learning.”

Also, recognizing that transfer students are counted as “non-graduates” by this metric, the report acknowledges that they are a “complication factor.” Still, it argues that “their impact ought not to be exaggerated,” given that differences in the relationship between transfer and graduation rates among institutions of similar level of selectivity were minimal.

“When two colleges that enroll similar students have a graduation rate gap of 20 or 30 percentage points or more, it is fair to ask why,” the report reads. “More important, students, parents, guidance counselors, and taxpayers (who foot the bill for many student costs) all deserve to know which schools graduate most of their students and which graduate only a few.”

Average Six-Year Graduation Rate and Range By Selectivity Category

Barron's Selectivity Noncompetitive Less Competitive Competitive Very Competitive Highly Competitive Most Competitive
Graduation Rate 34.7% 39.6% 48.6% 62.3% 75.2% 87.8%

As expected, the average graduation rates of institutions within the six levels set by Barron’s increase as they move from less to more selective. The report, however, draws particular attention to the gaps within these groups.

“Take, for example, Heritage University and Walla Walla University, both in Washington,” the report reads. “On the surface, the schools look similar — both are noncompetitive, private master’s degree-granting colleges located in the same state. However, Walla Walla graduates 53 percent of its students, while Heritage graduates only 17 percent. Our analysis reveals that such substantial differences between similar schools are quite common.”

It should be noted, however, that Heritage is located on the Yakama Indian Reservation and primarily serves Native American and other minority students, many of whom may not have had the same college preparation as other students.

The most dramatic gaps come in the noncompetitive category. Southern University in New Orleans graduates 8 percent of its students in six years, while Arkansas Baptist College graduates 100 percent. Cutting the numbers another way, institutions ranked in the bottom third of graduation rates in the noncompetitive category have an average graduation rate of 20 percent, while institutions in the top third have a graduation rate of 52 percent. Outcomes of similar students, it appears from this data, can depend heavily upon institution.

The gap between the best and worst graduation rates remains severe through institutions considered very competitive, totaling greater than 77 percent in the bottom four levels. Among highly competitive institutions, the gap drops to 45 percent. Finally, in the most competitive, all graduation rates were above the national average of 60 percent, and none of the top ten institutions were below 94 percent.

Among other findings – institutions were further divided by geographical region – colleges and universities in the South had the lowest graduation rates in the report’s sample. Also, most historically black colleges and universities post graduation rates that are less than 50 percent. Most institutions of high Hispanic enrollment – or those with at least 25 percent Hispanic students – post similarly poor numbers. None of these Hispanic-serving institutions had a graduation rate greater than 60 percent. Many of the minority-serving colleges, of course, educate many students who are low-income and/or graduates of poor high schools, while many of the institutions with much higher ratings educate many more affluent students.


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