Are Too Many Colleges a Black Hole?

By Debra Viadero — June 03, 2009 2 min read
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Babson, Bennington, and Mount Holyoke colleges have a lot in common. All located in New England, the three schools enroll students with similar academic profiles and charge nearly the same tuition.

But only 60 percent of the freshmen who set foot on campus at Bennington graduate within six years. The graduation rates for Babson and Mount Holyoke—at 89 percent each—are 30 percent higher.

Where would you want your child to go to school?

That’s the sort of information that researchers at the American Enterprise Institute want parents, students, and guidance counselors to keep in mind as students navigate the college decisionmaking process. To help guide them, the Washington-based think tank is putting out a report today that gathers and compares graduation-rate data for more than 1,000 colleges and universities, from small private liberal arts schools to prestigious public research universities to regional colleges with open admissions.

What the statistics show is that graduation rates vary dramatically from school to school, going from a low of 8 percent at Colorado Christian University to 100 percent at Arkansas Baptist College.

As you might expect, the most selective schools tend to have the highest six-year graduation rates. Harvard, Amherst, Yale, Brown, Princeton, and Stanford all graduate 95 percent or more of students within six years. But they also get the pick of the litter, so to speak.

To make for fairer comparisons, the researchers used ratings developed by the Barron’s college guides to group schools into six categories, from “noncompetitive” to “most competitive,” based on their student-selectivity status. Even among schools in the same category, you can find a considerable range of graduation rates. The Babson-Bennington-Mount Holyoke example shows that.

“When two colleges that enroll similar students have a graduation rate gap of 20 or 30 percentage points or more,” the report says, “it is fair to ask why.”

It is. The researchers conclude that, while it’s true that some students are more motivated than others, colleges have to shoulder some of the blame, too.

The American Council on Education, the Washington group that speaks for the nation’s colleges and universities, will give its response to the report at a forum this morning at AEI. Geri Malandra, a senior vice president for that group, told me yesterday that one point she plans to make is that graduation rates, while distressingly low for some colleges, are “just a piece of the picture” that students need to put together as they weigh which college to attend.

The report, “Diplomas and Dropouts,” was written by the ever-prolific Rick Hess; former National Center for Education Statistics commissioner Mark Schneider, now an AEI fellow and a vice president at the American Institutes for Research; Kevin Carey, a policy director and blogger at Education Sector, and Andrew P. Kelly, an AEI research fellow. Look for the report to be posted today at AEI’s Web site.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.