U.S. College Graduation Rates

May 30, 2019

Persistence, Retention, and Attainment of 2011–12 First-Time Beginning Postsecondary Students as of Spring 2017: First Look. This First Look report provides findings from the 2012/17 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study, a national survey of undergraduate students entering postsecondary education for the first time.  It looks at a cohort of beginning students over a six-year period of time, examining persistence, retention and attainment (degrees conferred). 

The overall graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year degree-granting institution in fall 2012 was 60 percent. That is, by 2017 approximately 60 percent of students had completed a bachelor’s degree. The 6-year graduation rate was 59 percent at public institutions, 74 percent at private nonprofit institutions, and 14 percent at private for-profit institutions.  Such low graduation rates are certainly cause for concern for a host of reasons, not the least because the 40% students not graduating have acquired student debt that cannot be offset by the value of having a degree.

The following data examines postsecondary graduation rates over the past seven years by Institutional control: public, private non-profit, and private for-profit. 

Data from The Conditions of Education (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013)


Postsecondary graduation rates in public institutions have stayed virtually the same for seven years, with 57% of students graduating in 2011 and 59% in 2017.  Private non-profit institutions remained at 65-66% graduation for the first six years, increasing by 8 percentage points in 2017.  Private for-profit institutions fared the worst, decreasing consistently from 42% in 2011 to 14% in 2017.  

Citation: Chen, X., Elliott, B.G., Kinney, S.K., Cooney, D., Pretlow, J., Bryan, M., Wu, J., Ramirez, N.A., and Campbell, T. (2019). Persistence, Retention, and Attainment of 2011–12 First-Time Beginning Postsecondary Students as of Spring 2017 (First Look) (NCES 2019-401). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.