Finding 1. At the Average School, a First-Time, Full-Time Student Has Less Than a 50-50 Chance of Graduating

Finding 1. At the Average School, a First-Time, Full-Time Student Has Less Than a 50-50 Chance of Graduating

Explaining the Mobility Metric

Using recently released College Scorecard data for this set of institutions, we have compiled a “mobility metric” that looks at how well four-year, public colleges and universities are doing across a variety of factors: net price (the amount paid once financial aid has been factored in) for students coming from families that make less than $48,000/year; the percentage of an institution’s students who receive Pell grants (typically students who come from families earning less than $50,000 per year); completion rates within six years for first-time, full-time students; the percentage of students who received financial aid earning more than $25,000 annually (the average salary of a high school graduate) six years after enrollment; and the repayment rate on federal loans for students three years after they leave school.*

This publicly-available data is by far the most comprehensive ever available for this type of analysis, but we recognize its limitations which are extensively noted above. The College Scorecard reports only institution-level graduation rates for first-time, full-time students, and for other metrics, it only reports on students with federal loans. At four-year public colleges, 57% of students are first-time, full-time students and approximately 51% of students have taken out student loans. 12

Given that many institutions have been reluctant to share data on their outcomes, this data set is the most comprehensive public reporting of how our colleges are doing-and hence worth studying even with the necessary caveats. In addition, this data represents the outcomes a student who intends to start full-time and finish college at the same institution could expect to receive at a school. As a result, the data limitations cannot mask what has become an astounding reality-that many of our nation’s public colleges are failing to make good on their promises to students.

In today’s economy, graduation rate is the most powerful indicator of whether or not a college is truly bringing value to a student’s life. Americans holding bachelor’s degrees have median weekly earnings that are more than $400 greater than their non-college educated peers, resulting in lifetime wages that are on average $1 million more over the course of a lifetime.” 13 By contrast, students who do not earn a diploma are in many cases worse off than if they had never attended college at all-in large part because most non-completers will have taken on some form of debt yet will not be eligible for the higher paying jobs a degree would open up to help pay it off. 14 This also explains why a recent Council of Economic Advisers report found that the students who are most likely to default on their student loans are those with less than $10,000 in debt, as these are students who are “much less likely to have completed, having left school before paying for the full cost of a degree.” 15

Yet, at the average public institution, students have LESS THAN a 1 in 2 shot of graduating.

  • The graduation rate for first time, full time students at the average four-year public institution is 48.3%.
  • At 6 in 10 of these institutions (57.6%), fewer than half of first-time, full-time students earn a degree.
  • Only 39 four-year public institutions (7.3%) boast a graduation rate higher than 75%.

This means that today, a first-time, full-time student who enters the average public institution is more likely to NOT graduate from that school than they are to graduate-a reality that should be distressing to any prospective student hoping to earn a degree from the same institution where they first enroll. In fact, there are 34 schools where these students have less than a 25% chance of finishing, including one school-Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri-with a completion rate in the single digits (9.3%). And while many may say that rising costs or a more difficult-to-serve population at four-year public institutions are solely to blame for this low performance, the data simply does not bear that out. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that while out-of-pocket net price for first-time, full-time students at four-year public institutions increased by $1,700, grant aid increased by $2,400 during this same time. 16 And when it comes to student body, the average four-year public college has the same number of first-time, full-time Pell students (38.2%) on campus as the average private, non-profit college (38.3%). In addition, only 19% of all four-year public institutions have open admissions policies compared to 15% of their four-year private, non-profit peers, so the vast majority of these institutions are accepting students through an application process designed to weed out bad fits. 17


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