This is an image of graduates wearing caps and gowns symbolizing student success.

Are Completion Rates Enough?

Throughout the years, we’ve seen a variety of different measures of what makes a college or university successful. Does the institution prepare students for future careers? Is the institution contributing to the well-being of its local community? Are the students satisfied with their experience? What do their completion rates look like?

Metrics like career preparation, community involvement, student satisfaction, and completion rates—to name just a few—are important assessments of institutional performance. However, graduation rates seem to be the metric that the general public hears the most about.

On the surface, completion rate seems like such a straightforward measure of institutional and student success. Simply count the number of students completing their programs, compare that to the number of students initially enrolled, and there you have it: the institution’s completion rate, nicely packaged as a percentage. Now all we need to do to see how a college or university is performing is compare it’s completion rate against the completion rates of other institutions, right?



Graduating african american female student throwing confettiImportant but Not Enough

When we simply line up institutions by their completion rates, say these institutions are doing well, and these other institutions are not, we are not comparing apples to apples. Often, we aren’t even comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to eggs.

Institutions are not indistinguishable. They aren’t interchangeable. They don’t have the same missions, student populations, or admissions requirements. But these are all major factors in the type of students an institution attracts, enrolls, supports, and graduates.

Completion rates are important. Very important. So it’s time we look at them differently.

Actual vs Expected Completion Rates

To be an effective measure of institutional performance, completion rates should be analyzed in the context of what makes an institution unique. Rather than comparing an institution against the one across town, others of the same size, or a national average, an institution should compare its actual performance against what should be expected of it, given its characteristics.


This is an image of graduates wearing caps and gowns symbolizing student success.This kind of analysis, which compares expectation to reality, gives stakeholders much more insight into how the institution contributes to the success of its students. Institutional leadership can determine which programs are working and which aren’t, meaning they can better allocate resources to reach the right student populations. Accreditors and governing boards can get a much more complete picture of an institution’s performance. Potential students can better evaluate if an institution is a good fit for them.

Institutions work hard—really, really hard—to support their students in achieving what they set out accomplish. It’s time that we give institutions better metrics that can help them identify how their work contributes to student success, and point them in the direction of how to help those students who may not be achieving their goals.

Are you interested in diving deeper into your institution’s graduation rates? IEHE’s RealityCheck Report provides an annual comparison analysis of your reported completion rates vs. your RealityCheck (expected) completion rates. Your custom RealityCheck Report also contains recommendations for improving your completion rates and strategies for communicating your achievements to your key stakeholders. Contact us about your RealityCheck Report to get started today!

The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.