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Public Colleges: Degree Completion Leaders

University Business, Jan 2012

Public institutions may have lower graduation rates, but in moving students toward graduation, it appears they’re more successful than private institutions, according to a report assessing graduation rates from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. It introduces a new method for predicting an institution’s graduation rate, based on social, economic, and psychological characteristics of incoming students.

Private universities graduate more students in four years (64 percent) than public schools, but given student traits, the expected graduation rate (67.7 percent) is actually higher. At public four-year colleges, on the other hand, only 19.3 percent would be expected to graduate in four years, yet the actual rate is 23.5 percent.What if public four-year colleges enrolled students with the characteristics of private university students? They could expect an increase in four-year degree attainment of 140 percent, the report surmises.

Report co-author Linda DeAngelo, assistant director of the institute’s CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program), says administrators at institutions where the actual graduation rate is higher than the expected rate should examine what programs are working and build upon them. “There’s always more that you can do,” she affirms.

That message is especially geared toward schools with little concern about degree completion because students are graduating. “All institutions have a role to play in meeting ambitious national college completion goals,” she says. What she sees as the wrong road for greater completion—trying to attract top students—has actually been partly the reason for improvements in the last decade. “There are only so many top students to go around,” she points out. “It’s really about educating our young adults versus trying to attract top students to improve your institutional bottom line.” The focus should instead be on “doing well with the population of students we serve.”

The full report can be downloaded here.