College Graduation Rates: Behind the numbers

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American Council on Education


Unlike other reports on graduation rates, the focus of this report is not on disparities in graduation rates, how to improve graduation rates, or how to fix the way in which graduation rates are calculated. The purpose of this report is to provide a layperson’s guide to the most commonly reported graduation rates and the databases used to calculate these rates. More specifically, this report provides policy makers and policy researchers with a history of the databases that are most often used to calculate graduation rates as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each database (this information also can be found in a summary table in the appendices). Additionally this report suggests several factors for policy makers to consider before using graduation rate data from existing databases as a way to assess institutional success. Overall, this report highlights the complexities of measuring what many policy makers view as a simple compliance metric with the existing national databases. Just because the existing databases used to calculate graduation rates were not designed with the current policy demands in mind does not render them useless. The databases referenced in this report provide valuable information on graduation rates; however, as the disadvantages of these databases reveal, users of these data should take care in using them to measure the overall effectiveness of postsecondary education institutions.



Graduation rates, numerical calculations, higher education system