Student Book With Pen On Wooden Board Chalk outline of a graduate

What is a ‘Good’ Graduation Rate?

I have been working in higher education for nearly 20 years. This year marks my 11th year as an IPEDS trainer (Yay!!). Time and again, people ask me: “What is a ‘good’ graduation rate?”. And time and again, I’m reminded that I don’t exactly have an answer.

Keep On Keeping On

The concept of a ‘good’–or perhaps ‘ideal’–graduation rate is one that has been on my mind for the entirety of my career: from admissions advisor to professional data wonk to author. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to share and discuss my thoughts on the topic via presentations, publications, and conversations.

Student Book With Pen On Wooden Board Chalk outline of a graduateThis year–like every year for the past 11 years–I find myself percolating on a couple of things in the lead up to the annual Institute for IPEDS Educators (IIE–a Train the Trainer sort of thing).

  • What are the analyses I’ve done with IPEDS this past year? What did I learn from them? How will they inform my future work or recommendations?
  • What IPEDS analyses have other colleagues done that I should understand better? How can their work inform my work in the coming years? (PS: I get a lot of great ideas from this great AIR series of free video webinars of higher ed experts discussing their use of IPEDS.


So Then, What is a ‘Good’ Graduation Rate?

With my brain focused on all things IPEDS during the IIE, I’m finding myself thinking about the ‘good’ graduation rate question in this context. How have I studied the data? How have others studied the data? What works, what doesn’t? What is next?

Of course we could define a ‘good’ graduation rate as 100%. Everyone wants a 100% graduation rate — it’s not like college and university leaders are purposefully setting the bar low and aiming for less than 100%. But in my opinion, ‘good’ should probably also be realistic and take into consideration the reality in which an institution’s operates.

So if we can agree that a 100% graduation rate, while ‘good’, may not be realistic for many, how else could we define ‘good’? We could compare rates against the “top” institutions in the nation. Against institutions of the same classification, sector, etc. Against customized peer groups. And if we’re keeping up with those we’re compared against, I suppose we could call that a ‘good’ graduation rate.

But I’m still left thinking that there must be more options than all or nothing or comparisons against other institutions. That perhaps there is something to consider in terms of accounting for context before we try to gauge whether or not an institution’s graduation rate is ‘good’.

Comparison scale of apples to oranges

I’m thinking through this data-puzzle and where we go from here. I have a few ideas (and feel pretty confident that IPEDS will be a piece of the puzzle) 😉 While I’m thinking, I’d love to discuss ideas with you! Send me a note, or leave a comment below to tell me how you gauge whether or not a graduation rate is ‘good’?

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.