Though educational attainment has increased generation over generation, many students still do not complete a college degree program. In fact, the latest statistics show that nearly 2 in 5 full-time students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting their program. Those numbers are even lower for some demographics and within certain types of institutions.
Key graduation rate statistics
- By 2019, 63 percent of students who started college full time in 2013 earned a bachelor’s degree at that institution.
- Public colleges have an average graduation rate of 62 percent, and private nonprofit schools have a rate of 68 percent.
- Women are more likely than men to graduate within six years of starting their degree program.
- Roughly 42 percent of students graduate from public four-year schools without student debt, and 78 percent graduate with less than $30,000 in debt.
- In 2019, more than 2 million bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the U.S.
- Millennials are more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than people from older generations.
Average graduation rates
Graduation rates are typically defined as the percentage of students who graduate from a program within four or six years of starting at that institution. With that said, graduation rates are seldom a perfect reflection of the total student population. For example, most measurements exclude part-time and transfer students.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that 63 percent of full-time students at all four-year institutions graduate within six years. However, that number is higher at private nonprofit institutions and lower at private for-profit and public institutions.
Undergraduate enrollment has seen a stark decline in recent years, especially as a consequence of COVID-19. Undergraduate enrollment for fall 2021 was 2.7 percent lower than for fall 2020, according to a National Student Clearinghouse report. With fewer students enrolling and many students dropping out due to pandemic concerns, graduation rates could fall over the next several years.
Graduation rates by demographic
Graduation rates are not uniform for all student groups; rates differ across gender, age, race and more.
Race plays a significant role in educational attainment in the U.S., with white and Asian students far more likely to graduate within six years than Black and Hispanic students. The Hechinger Report points to financial pressure as a primary cause — structural inequities mean that Black and Hispanic students may need to hold a job while in college or attend expensive remedial classes to make up for inadequate high school preparation. This, combined with social pressures while on campus, could contribute to lower graduation rates for marginalized groups.
|Race/ethnicity||Graduation rate for full-time students within 4 years||Graduation rate for full-time students within 5 years||Graduation rate for full-time students within 6 years||Total full-time student graduation rate|
|American Indian/ Alaska Native||23%||12%||4%||39%|
|Two or more races||39%||16%||4%||60%|
Data shows that men are much less likely to graduate within six years than women. This is true at every type of institution except private for-profit institutions, though the difference is greatest at private nonprofit institutions.
|Graduation rate within 6 years (all institutions)||Graduation rate within 6 years (public institutions)||Graduation rate within 6 years (private nonprofit institutions)||Graduation rate within 6 years (private for-profit institutions)|
In addition to lower graduation rates, there is a steady decline of men enrolling in college at all, the Brookings Institute found. Those who identify as women may feel an added pressure to earn a degree to make up for lower pay or because of occupational segregation. While trade jobs — like construction or carpentry — often have competitive pay, some women may not feel that a job in majority-male workforces are as obtainable as other occupations that require degrees.
Graduation rates by school
Some colleges have higher graduation rates than others; for instance, students at Ivy League institutions are much more likely to graduate within six years than students at lesser-known public or for-profit schools. Here are the top 10 U.S. colleges with the highest and lowest graduation rates.
Colleges with the highest graduation rates
|College/university||4-year graduation rate||6-year graduation rate|
|University of Notre Dame||N/A||97%|
|Columbia University in the City of New York||85.72%||96.21%|
|University of Chicago||90.72%||95.98%|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||86.63%||95.58%|
Colleges with the lowest graduation rates
|College/university||4-year graduation rate||6-year graduation rate|
|Granite State College||1.33%||6.67%|
|Western International University||N/A||11%|
|Arkansas Baptist College||N/A||12.46%|
Graduation rates by state
College graduation rates in the U.S. also vary by state. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts hold the highest graduation rates, while New Mexico, Alabama, Wyoming and Arizona all have graduation rates below 40 percent.
States with the highest graduation rate
States with the lowest graduation rate
Graduating with student loan debt
Statista estimates that in 2018-19, 55 percent of U.S. college graduates had some form of student loan debt. Rising college tuition has meant that many students need to take on debt for their education. In fact, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that after adjusting for inflation, federal student loan debt alone increased sevenfold from 1995 to 2017.
Data from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities shows that among those with student debt who received an undergraduate degree from a public four-year institution, the largest percentage of students graduated with debt of less than $20,000. However, the next-largest group of students graduated with more than $30,000 in debt.
|Student loan debt amount (bachelor’s degree from public 4-year institution)||Percentage of college graduates|
The good news for borrowers is that federal student loan payments and interest charges have been stalled since March 2020 and will continue to be stalled through Aug. 31 of this year. This has given many borrowers the chance to pay down their balances without interest eating into those payments. While borrowers are not required to make payments, the pause could help federal borrowers eliminate their student loan balances more quickly.
The bottom line
College students can increase their chances of graduating on time by working closely with their academic advisor, taking advantage of financial aid and choosing a field of study that interests them. And even though many students don’t graduate within the standard time frame for their program, a degree is still within reach — it’s possible to extend a degree program or even come back for a degree later on in life.