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Colleges may be able to improve their graduation rates by gaining a better understanding of the students they enroll, according to a report being released today.

The report, from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, brings together data from the "freshman survey"  by UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program and graduation numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse and aims to help colleges determine if they have actually improved retention rates or if they have simply attracted better students.

Linda DeAngelo, assistant director for research at UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program, said the study could eventually help in improving graduation rates. Officials said the new data tell colleges how well they are doing with respect to the students they are bringing in. Without such analysis, colleges may think they are improving their graduation rates when they really are only enrolling better-prepared students.

“It lets them compare the expected rate of graduation to the real rate,” DeAngelo said. “One of the takeaways from this report is that there are persistent gaps that need to be addressed. We need to look at the population that have these gaps to help them graduate.”

The report and a calculating tool designed by the program offer a realistic way of looking at the bottom line to help colleges with their retention bottom line, DeAngelo said.

  Weighted Percent
Completing Bachelor's Degree Within
Institutional Type  4 Years  5 years  6 Years
Public University 37.1 59.8 65.6
Private University 64.0 75.9 78.2
Public 4-Year College 23.5 43.1 49.5
Nonsectarian 4-Year College 48.7 59.3 61.8
Catholic 4-Year College 54.1 64.0 66.0
Other Religious 4-Year College 47.8 56.3 57.9

The new report can help predict an institution’s graduation rate by considering factors like the emotional health of students, whether students are working full time while they are in college, and whether a student is among the first in his or her family to attend college.  

“In order to actually improve degree completion rates at an institutional, as well as state and national level, the focus needs to be squarely on creating conditions for success for all students who begin college,” the report says.

Other findings in the report:

  • Only 32.9 percent of men earn a degree in four years, while the percentage for women is 43.8. The gap shrinks to 5.5 percentage points at the end of the sixth year.
  • First-generation college students earn a degree at the rate of 27.4 percent after four years, while students whose parents have college degrees have a graduation rate of 42.1 percent.
  • Asian American and white students had the highest four-year graduation rates, at 44.9 percent and 42.6 percent respectively.
  • Degree-attainment rates remain is the highest at private universities; the lowest numbers come from public four-year colleges.

Data from the survey shows that overall graduation rates in colleges and universities went up by about 2.5 percent when compared to similar data from 10 years ago.

The successes of the private universities is directly related to the quality of students they enroll. This is because private colleges are more likely than publics to admit students with educational and socioeconomic backgrounds that make it likely they will graduate. “And, though public institutions have lower overall graduation rates, they are having relatively more success in moving the students they enroll towards graduation,” the report stated.

Andrew Zehner, assessment and data analyst at the division of student affairs at Purdue University,  said that the CIRP data help colleges learn more about the characteristics of students. Purdue has a freshman retention rate of about 90 percent, but in order to raise that, university officials might need to know more about students who are not being retained. Though institutional data can help answer many of these questions, the new survey probes deeper.

“It gives you a sense of how committed they are, the commitment to their majors and how they feel living away from homes,” Zehner said, indicating the kind of information available from the survey.

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