Weighing four-year completion rates for grads
Earning a bachelor’s degree in four years is the goal for students — and their families. That’s why they’re often called “four-year degrees,” right? But that timeframe is often not met, with consequences in terms of extra costs and lost earnings. New data analysis highlights how enrolling at Minnesota’s Private Colleges increases the odds of meeting the four-year goal.
Start with all the people who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Minnesota — and consider those who did so in four years at the same institution. That’s what we’re measuring with the four-year completion rate for graduates. Looking at those degree earners at the 17 private colleges that are members of the Minnesota Private College Council, the share who graduated in four-years was 87 percent.
Now look at the data for the public alternatives in our state. In contrast, the share of graduates from the University of Minnesota who completed their degrees in four years averaged 64 percent — 23 percentage points lower than the figure for the private colleges. The figure for the state universities was lower still: the share of graduates from MnSCU who completed their degrees in four years averaged 43 percent — 44 percentage points lower than the figure for the private colleges. These comparisons are all looking at first-time students who were enrolled full-time at the start of their first year and attended at the same institution through graduation.
*The Minnesota Private College Council’s 17 member institutions
So why do graduates from private colleges have far greater odds of actually completing their degrees in four years than grads from Minnesota’s public institutions? With smaller enrollments and a focus on smaller classes, students receive more personal attention at private colleges than at public ones, notes Jon McGee, vice president of planning and public affairs at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. “The time-to-completion success at private colleges is based on a couple of things,” McGee said. “Students are able to get the classes required to complete on time and they are receiving the kind of advising and support they need along the way.”
For families considering the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, their institutional time-to-completion figures have been shared for years. McGee said it has been a helpful tool for families as they weigh their options. With the aggregate data in this article, the Minnesota Private College Council is aiming to provide a similar resource.
Pulling in graduation rates
Another way to consider what happens at colleges and the odds of earning a degree is by looking at the actual graduation rate. This measure looks at a group or cohort of entering students and considers how many of them have stayed at that institution and earned their degree. (Unlike with the completion rate for graduates, students who leave a college either to transfer or to stop being in school would lower the four-year graduation rate.)
For the 17 institutions in the Minnesota Private College Council, our four-year graduation rate is the best in the state — above the public systems here. It is also the best in the Midwest, compared to public systems and other states’ private colleges. In fact, our graduation rate ranks third highest in the nation.
Source: Graduation Rate Report, January 2016, Minnesota Private College Council
Some may question the meaning of this graduation rate success. There’s the question that arises about whether students at our institutions are dramatically different, say in the share of students who are going full time. But part-time and transfer students are left out of these data, at public institutions as well, to ensure that the comparisons are as apples-to-apples as possible. Another question arises at times about if our students come uniquely well prepared academically. But that’s not the case. Using ACT scores as an indicator of academic preparation, we see students with a wide variety of those scores at our institutions, just as there are at public institutions.
What’s different, then, aren’t our students. What’s different is the experience they have at our institutions. Simply put, our smaller private colleges are focused on helping students and setting them up for future success. As our alumni know, it’ unlikely that you’ll be lost in the crowd at our colleges — that’s just not how they work. And that’s why our graduation rate and completion rate for graduates are as strong as they are.
Why it matters
Completing in four years allows students to move on sooner — to begin careers and go on to earn additional degrees. But completing in four years also matters because it helps families control their costs. The consequences of taking longer aren’t just about the extra tuition. You have to consider the so-called “opportunity cost” too; that’s the income a student doesn’t have a chance to earn since she’s still working on that degree. Imagine a new graduate who is able to earn $35,000 in her first year after college. If that student wasn’t able to graduate and is instead enrolled for a fifth year of college, that $35,000 is the sizable opportunity cost of taking longer to complete her degree.