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It's one thing for Harvard University to graduate most of its students within six years. But what about colleges and universities with less stringent admissions requirements?

Some do much better than might be expected of them, according to Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a higher education newsletter. In the April issue, Thomas G. Mortenson analyzed data from 1,100 public and private institutions to gauge the "education value" they provide.

He compared actual graduation rates with what might be expected given the academic backgrounds of their freshmen, the percentage of students who live on campus, and the proportion of part-time students.

"You would expect Harvard to graduate most of the students they admit, but you would not expect an open-door institution to do as well," said Mr. Mortenson, the newsletter's publisher. He did the analysis with Martin Miller, an intern at the independent Iowa City, Iowa-based newsletter.

By his calculations, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., ranks first nationally in terms of added educational value.

According to Mr. Mortenson, the school should graduate 40 percent of its students. The SAT scores of its freshmen in 1990 averaged 782, compared with 1370 for those at Harvard. And 80 percent of Sacred Heart's freshmen live on campus, compared with 90 percent at Harvard. Previous studies have shown that students who live on campus and attend college full-time learn more over the four years they spend there.

But Sacred Heart graduates 77 percent of its students--almost double the expected rate. Harvard's expected graduation rate--91.7 percent--is a few points below the actual rate of 97 percent, placing it in the middle of its Ivy League competitors.

Private colleges and universities--especially Roman Catholic schools--fared well in the analysis. Public and private schools with engineering programs, on the other hand, ranked relatively low.

Some college officials disagreed with the report, saying the relatively low graduation rates at engineering schools may reflect their academic rigor--not a lack of educational quality.

At Philadelphia's Drexel University, a spokesman said the school's low ranking may stem from the selectivity of its engineering program and its cooperative-learning program, which places students in the workplace. Philip Terranova, Drexel's vice president of university relations, said students sometimes put off their degrees to capitalize on the job offers they get through the program.


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