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

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
White 45% 15% 4% 64%
Black 21% 14% 5% 40%
Hispanic 32% 17% 6% 54%
Asian 50% 18% 6% 74%
Pacific Islander 31% 16% 5% 51%
American Indian/ Alaska Native 23% 12% 4% 39%
Two or more races 39% 16% 4% 60%

Source: National Center for Education Statistics


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)
Male 60% 59% 64% 28%
Female 66% 65% 71% 25%

Source: The National Center for Education Statistics

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
Princeton University 89.69% 98.02%
Harvard University 85.93% 97.63%
Swarthmore College 91.38% 97.29%
University of Notre Dame N/A 97%
Yale University 83.95% 96.39%
Columbia University in the City of New York 85.72% 96.21%
University of Chicago 90.72% 95.98%
Williams College 89.01% 95.97%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 86.63% 95.58%
Duke University 88.42% 95.52%


Colleges with the lowest graduation rates

College/university 4-year graduation rate 6-year graduation rate
Granite State College 1.33% 6.67%
Ashford University 0.75% 6.9%
Paine College 6.86% 7.84%
Martin University 10% 10%
Western International University N/A 11%
Arkansas Baptist College N/A 12.46%
Jones College-Jacksonville N/A 14%
Texas College 5.88% 14.12%
Brewton-Parker College 4.55% 14.55%
LeMoyne-Owen College 3.45% 15.17%


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

State Graduation rate
Rhode Island 70.5%
Pennsylvania 61.3%
Massachusetts 59.58%
Idaho 58.65%
Iowa 58.04%


States with the lowest graduation rate

State Graduation rate
New Mexico 34.18%
Alabama 36.46%
Wyoming 39.8%
Arizona 39.88%
South Carolina 40.42%


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
$0 42%
$1–$19,999 23%
$20,000–$29,999 13%
$30,000–$49,999 15%
$50,000+ 7%

Source: Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities

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.