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Graduation Rates at Virginia's Public Four-Year Institutions

by Tod Massa 16. May 2014 20:12

(This is an extract of a report in next week's TJ21 Implementation Committee agenda.)

 Since the gubernatorial election of 2009 and the passage of the Governor McDonnell’s higher education centerpiece, the Virginia Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2011, Virginia has pursued a major goal of achieving a cumulative increase of 100,000 undergraduate degrees awarded to in-state students by 2025.  The law also includes a “like” increase in cumulative in-state undergraduate degrees from the nonprofit private institutions. Current projections have the Commonwealth well on its way to attaining that goal without difficulty. This would bring the degree attainment rates of Virginians aged 25-64 to approximately 55% with an associate’s degree or higher.

The common thread in any discussion about achieving the 100,000 degree goal has been the question of “How do we get there?” Clearly, degree production is about enrollment and completion. We can hold completion rates the same (or hope they stay the same) and focus on enrolling more students thus creating more degrees, or we can focus on increasing graduation rates so the same number of students entering college earn more degrees, or we can attempt both. With either of the last two options, it is useful to know where we are currently with respect to graduation rates. For this report our focus is on the public four-year institutions.  Virginia public four-year colleges and universities, as a group,  have the second highest combined graduation rate in the nation (70% and tied with Iowa), lagging behind only Delaware (73%) using the IPEDS Graduation Rate Survey results of the 2007 entering cohort of first-time, full-time students. Delaware only has two public four-year institutions (Delaware State University and University of Delaware) representing an adjusted cohort of 4,381 students compared to 28,608 in Virginia. Iowa also started with many fewer students, 9,873, from only three institutions. North Carolina is at 60%, Maryland at 61%, West Virginia 45%, and the District of Columbia 15%. 


The National Student Clearinghouse’s Signature Report #6 State Supplement provides different view of graduation rates by state. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) collects student-level data from participating institutions of all sectors representing approximately 94% of enrolled students. The scope of data collected on each student is quite limited, but its coverage of undergraduate enrollment and degree awards is unmatched.  While NSC data cannot be used to precisely reproduce the IPEDS data, they are used to produce more complete and more nuanced measures that provide a necessary context for understanding student success.

Nationally, the NSC has calculated that 63.4% of students beginning at a public four-year institution in 2007 completed a degree within six years at any institution. Limiting the measure to students completing their degree at the institution where they began, only 50.6% completed within six years. Fifteen percent of students enrolling in college for the first-time in 2007 were still enrolled in year six without having yet completed. Here again, Virginia barely trails behind Iowa in overall completion rate with 77.8% to Iowa’s 79.8. When it comes to graduating from the institution where the student initially enrolled, Virginia is on top at 67.3% with Iowa at 65.6%. A portion of Iowa’s students are bit more likely to complete a degree at a two-year institution than Virginia’s students.

The NSC report provides a comparable measure of graduation rate restricted to students who maintain continuous full-time enrollment.  This is an interesting measure as it provides an indication of the success rates of students who clearly seemed aimed at completion. Iowa students achieve an overall 91.4% completion rate, with 79.5% completing at the original institution. Virginia students achieve a 90.6% completion rate with 83% completing at the original institution of enrollment.

Of course, since the data from the National Student Clearinghouse are, in fact, national, these are measures of student success more than any type of institutional effect. Typically, somewhere between 70 and 80% of students attending college in the year after high school attend college in Virginia. Thus while these measures are heavily driven by Virginia’s public four-year colleges, a significant number of students go out of state and graduate at comparable rates. This speaks well of their preparation in Virginia high schools.


Looking at Virginia’s institutions we see a range graduation rates.Over the past two decades, the combined public four-year graduation rate has increased from 42% of students completing within four-years to 51%, and 61% completing within six years to 69%, for all first-time, full-time students. This measure is slightly different than the previously used IPEDS measure as it is ignores the exclusions for death, military service, public service, and religious mission. SCHEV has foregone those exclusions as the there have never been more than 30 reported annually statewide on a basis of over 40,000 students in recent years.  Further, because of file construction design and differences among institutions, we no longer include seventh summer graduates as part of year six of the graduation rate. This has very little impact, particularly as we view graduation rates in terms of annual trends.  While the overall change of eight percentage points may not seem to be a huge increase over time, it certainly gives lie to the belief that graduation rates have not increased. Further, not only has the rate of graduation increased, but the raw number of entering students has increased by about 33% during the same time period.



The rates in the charts above are limited to a very traditional model of measurement – students enrolled in college for the first-time as full-time students in the fall semester. In a later post, and in the agenda item, we will explore more holistic measures of graduation rates and student success.





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