On May 3, U.S. News posted an article on the 10 colleges with the highest four-year graduation rates. The article notes that among all students who began college full-time in 2003 at over 1,700 reporting institutions, about 40% earned bachelor’s degrees from those institution by 2007. “At the 10 colleges with the highest four-year graduation rates, in contrast, an average of about 90 percent of students completed their degree in four years.”
What could these schools be doing right? Could other colleges emulate them and achieve the same success? Are the school-made checklists Pomona encourages students to complete annually responsible—as the article implies—for the 89% graduation rate at the liberal-arts college ranked #6 in the U.S. News rankings? Or might the facts that 91% of the students were in the top 10% of their high-school graduating classes, the middle 50% of enrolled students scored between 680 and 780 on the reading and math SAT’s, and only about 15% of applicants are accepted provide more clues?
The only two institutions on the list that are not among either the top 10 national liberal-arts colleges or the top 10 national universities as ranked by U.S. News are Notre Dame, which is the 19th national university, and the United States Naval Academy, which is the 16th national liberal-arts college.
Increasing educational attainment is vital both for our economy and for individuals in our society. Increasing the proportion of students who complete the programs they undertake in a timely manner is an important component of this effort. But focusing on the success of institutions that educate only a tiny fraction of the most academically talented and well prepared students in the country—a disproportionate number of whom have college-educated, relatively wealthy parents—is not just meaningless. It is destructive in sending the wrong signal to colleges that being more selective in their admissions processes is the route to success.
Ironically, in its own iconic college rankings, U.S. News includes a measure of the graduation rate of a college’s students relative to what we should expect given the entering qualifications of its students. These estimates (which have problems of their own) would be a much more instructive starting point than the graduation rates U.S. News chose to focus on in this article.
We should not excuse colleges for failing to support success among their students, no matter what barriers those students face. But we should develop appropriate standards for measuring both student and institutional success relative to the starting points of the students. We should remember that many of the 93% of Williams College’s 2003 freshmen who earned their degrees in 2007 are likely to make major contributions to society. But many of them would have made those contributions even without the amazing educational opportunities they were provided, and there are many other students to whom we owe much more, and on whom our future depends.