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A MATTER OF DEGREES: New Ed Trust Report Finds Low College Graduation Rates for All Students, Particularly for Low-Income and Minority Students

"Our higher education system is a world-class system and is a great asset to the general welfare and quality of our society," said Kevin Carey, senior policy analyst at the Education Trust and author of the report.

While postsecondary enrollments have grown dramatically since 1975, barely six out of ten (63 percent) of first-time full-time degree-seeking college freshmen graduate in six years or less, according to a new report from the Education Trust. The report, A Matter of Degrees: Improving Graduation Rates in Four-Year Colleges and Universities, also found that among low-income and minority students, graduation rates were much lower. Only 54 percent of low-income students graduated within six years, and African-American and Latino students’ graduation rates were even worse, at 46 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

“Our higher education system is a world-class system and is a great asset to the general welfare and quality of our society,” said Kevin Carey, senior policy analyst at the Education Trust and author of the report. “But it is failing to graduate the numbers of students needed if we are to continue to compete in a global economy. And a disproportionate amount of these students are low-income and minority students. For both moral and economic reasons, we must change the way we do business in higher education in this country.”

The report found that the United States, in failing to improve its graduation rate, is almost unique among industrialized countries. Additionally, the United States is one of the only countries where twenty-five- to thirty-five-year-olds are essentially no more likely to have a college degree than forty-five- to fifty-four-year-olds.

According to the report, graduation rates vary widely-from 10 percent to almost 100 percent-from institution to institution. Nearly 20 percent of all four-year institutions graduate fewer than one-third of their first-time, full-time degree-seeking freshmen in six years or less. When broken down along ethnic background, the results at some colleges and universities are appalling. For example, of the 772 U.S. colleges and universities in which at least 5 percent of the full-time undergraduates are African-American:

  • 299 have a graduation rate for African-American students under 30 percent;
  • 164 have a graduation rate for African-American students under 20 percent; and
  • 68 have a graduation rate for African-American students under 10 percent.

The numbers are similar for Hispanic students: 25 percent of all institutions with 5 percent Latino students have a Latino graduation rate of less than 30 percent.

In a bit of good news, the report does highlight a few high-performing institutions that have significantly higher graduation rates than their peer institutions, have worked to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in graduation numbers, or have made significant improvement in graduation rates over time. Some highlighted institutions include Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, the University of Northern IowaBinghamton University in New York, and the University of Florida.

The report also makes recommendations to help improve outcomes in postsecondary institutions:

  • focus on “real accountability in higher education”-the report asks state policymakers and higher education leaders to concentrate on closing gaps for low-income and minority students and to collectively commit to making comprehensive and significant improvements in higher education graduation rates for all students;
  • improve alignment between K-12 and higher education, which includes states and districts working together to increase rigorous academic course taking in high school;
  • continue to improve access and affordability;
  • continue to increase the quality of learning;
  • change the way public institutions are funded-the report argues that states should base funding on student progression through school and graduation rates rather than the number of students enrolled; and
  • invest in more and better information.

The data in A Matter of Degrees were collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Graduation Rate Survey (GRS) and made available to the public disaggregated by race for the first time this year. With the report, the Education Trust marked the launch of its work in higher education. Its new initiative will focus on the policies and practices needed to improve higher education outcomes, particularly for low-income and minority students, who have been traditionally underrepresented in American colleges and universities.

The complete report is available at

On the Bookshelf: Double the Numbers: Increasing Postsecondary Credentials for Underrepresented Youth


As high school students around the country are graduating this year, a new book from Jobs for the Future (JFF) cautions that the high school diploma-as elusive as it still remains for too many high school students-is no longer an adequate educational endpoint for any of the country’s youth. Double the Numbers: Increasing Postsecondary Credentials for Underrepresented Youth urges the United States to “double the numbers” of low-income and minority youth who go on to college or some other form of postsecondary training or education.

“This is not just a personal tragedy for young people who get sold short on their futures,” said Hilary Pennington, CEO of Jobs for the Future. “It constitutes a crisis for the entire country-because our collective future rests on the future employment and civic engagement of all our young people.”

The contributing authors of Double the Numbers focus on state policy and examine how to help motivate older adolescents in school settings, overcome the rigidities of high school schedules and routines, and prepare students for smooth transitions to postsecondary learning and success. According to JFF, the focus on state policy is necessary because doubling the numbers will “require aggressive innovation by the states.”

An upcoming publication from the Economic Policy Institute, The State of Working America, underscores JFF’s argument that a high school diploma, by itself, is insufficient in the economy of the twenty-first century. It finds that from 1979 to 2003, the inflation-adjusted hourly wages earned by recent high school graduates fell by 17.4 percent among men and 4.9 percent among women.

More information on Double the Numbers, including ordering information, is available at


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.