College Completion:

Additional Efforts Could Help Education with Its Completion Goals

GAO-03-568: Published: May 23, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 2003.

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Because of concerns that not enough students who start college are completing a bachelor's degree, we examined (1) the extent to which students who enroll in a 4-year college complete a bachelor's degree and identify the factors that affect completion; (2) what states and 4-year colleges and universities are doing to foster bachelor's degree completion; and (3) what the Department of Education (Education) is doing to foster degree completion.

More than half of all students who enrolled in a 4-year college completed a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students were less likely to complete if neither parent had completed a degree, they were black, they worked 20 or more hours per week, or they transferred to another college. Students had a greater likelihood of completing if they were continuously enrolled, attended full-time, or had more rigorous high school curriculum. After controlling for other factors, GAO found that disadvantaged students were no less likely to complete a degree than other students. However, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to attend college in the first place. States are beginning to hold colleges accountable for retaining and graduating their students, and Education has been discussing this with the higher education community. Many states are publishing retention and graduation rates for their colleges, and some have tied performance in these areas to funding. According to Education, providing information on colleges' retention and graduation performance can help prospective students make informed decisions. However, the measure used by Education may not fully reflect an institution's performance because institutional goals and missions are not captured in the measure. In its strategic plan, Education has identified goals to reduce gaps in college completion and increase overall completion. It also has some evaluation and dissemination efforts related to retention and completion, however, these efforts do not systematically identify and disseminate promising retention and graduation practices to help states and institutions.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: As Education moves forward with its plan to hold colleges and universities accountable for their performance in graduating their students, the Secretary of Education should consider multiple measures that would help account for other goals of higher education, such as increasing participation, as well as differences in mission, selectivity, and programmatic offerings of postsecondary institutions. Education should work with states and colleges to determine what would be most helpful for strengthening the accountability of institutions and ensuring positive outcomes for students.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education officials indicated that while such multiple measures are not currently authorized by statute, the agency remains committed to considering ways to implement multiple measures when HEA reauthorization activity begins in the next Congress. Education indicates that it is interested in strengthening the accountability of institutions and improving outcomes for students. Toward that end, Education expanded data on student retention and completion for institutions of higher education to ensure that data can be disaggregated by gender and race/ethnicity. The agency also collects data on transfer rates at institutions to help put retention and graduation rates into context.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should take steps to identify and disseminate information about promising practices in the areas of retention and graduation across all sectors of postsecondary education.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to Education officials, the agency funded numerous projects related to retention, completion, and graduation through the Fund for Improving Postsecondary Education. Descriptions and outcomes for these projects are readily available via the program's online project database.

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