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Applying to College? Check the Graduation Rate First

College-bound high school students are juggling an enormous amount of data as they narrow down their list of colleges and make their final pick.

There’s the cost factor, the amount of available scholarships, loans, and financial aid, as well as the location, the degree programs, the average student debt, the demographics of the student population, the amenities in the dorms. But there’s one other major factor that students should be considering— the percentage of students that graduate from a particular college on time, within four years.

A school’s graduation rate is an important indicator that often flies under the radar of students, parents, and even high school guidance counselors, according to Rachelle Wolosoff, founder of College Search Expert, LLC.

“I don’t think it’s focused on enough. Period,” she said. “But the information is available out there.”

They should also be asking about graduation rates during tours of the campus, just as they would ask about how many graduates get jobs in their degree field, or what financial aid packages are available.

Wolosoff recommended all parents and students ask college representatives, “Why is your graduation rate what it is?” 

“They should have a cohesive, logical answer,” she said, “and if it’s not, those, to me, are red flags.” 

High graduation rates often indicate more selective schools and a good infrastructure to support enrolled students during their college careers. Lower graduation rates can signal less funding and less individualized student attention.

“It’s very significant because you have opportunity costs if you stay in school longer. You could be earning money if you get out in four years,” Wolosoff said. “Those two years of staying in school, year five and year six, is costing you money, not only in tuition but also in the lost salary.” 

Here’s what you should know about graduation rates.

Graduation Rates Often Differ Between Public and Private Schools

The schools with the highest graduation rates are typically private universities rather than state schools. 

Private institutions average a four-year graduation rate of 51% compared to public universities which average just 30%, according to The College Board, which pulled its data from The National Center for Education Statistics. 

Students often lean toward state schools because the tuition is less expensive, but it doesn’t always turn out to be the lowest cost option if they take longer than four years to graduate.

“State schools are under a lot of budget pressure,” Wolosoff said. “They don’t have enough courses or the courses fill up quickly. And in addition to that if you have a student who’s not very organized and doesn’t register at the right time, registers late for example, then they can be closed out very easily from a course because it’s filled up.”

Schools with High Graduation Rates Invest in Their Students

What’s the difference between a school with a very high graduation rate and a very low graduation rate? Often, the amount of time and money they put into their students. 

“They have the funding to hire those counselors and advisors who really make it a point of meeting with students, getting to know them, and advising them properly as to when to take courses, what path the students should take based upon their interests and needs, and to really be very hands on with the students,” Wolosoff said. “I think that has to play a big, big role because then students won’t fall through the cracks.”highest grad rate

lowest grad rate

Sometimes, Graduation Rates Are Lower with Good Reason

Wolosoff always recommends asking a school about a lower graduation rate because the university may have a logical explanation, including longer degree programs or successful co-op programs that encourage students to work in their field while earning a degree.

Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts is widely considered to be a top university in the region. It’s retention rate—the number of freshman students who stick around for their sophomore year—is 97%. Their average alumni salary is nearly $110,000.

But their four-year graduation rate is 0%That’s because Northeastern has one of the best experiential learning programs in the U.S. Students finish their degrees in five or six years all while working in their chosen field throughout, through the university’s top-notch co-op program that places them with employers around the world.

Northeastern boats a job placement rate of 95%, with graduates earning a median salary of $54,400 two years post-graduation, significantly more than the national median of $26,913 per year.

Graduation Rates Are Just One Piece of the Research Puzzle

Just like the cost of tuition, the location of the school and the degree programs offered, graduation rates are just one factor to consider.

“Without the proper guidance, students end up going to schools that they maybe don’t belong in,” Wolosoff said. 

And while high school guidance counselors do what they can with limited time, the onus is on parents and students to do the work.

“There’s so much to look at when you are deciding a school to apply to,” she said. “It’s hard to know it all.”

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subject is not necessarily those of Earnest.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.