The Rise and Fall of the College Graduation Rate: The Fate of 3 Million Students Remains a Mystery

What happened to 75% of 2004 New College Students?  No one knows…

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by Jeff Selingo

A college’s graduation rate is such a basic consumer fact for would-be students these days that it’s difficult to imagine that the federal government didn’t even collect the information as recently as the early 1990s.

If not for two former Olympic basketball players who made their way to Congress and wanted college athletes to know about their chances of graduating, we might still be in the dark about how well a college does in graduating the students it enrolls.

Making Sense of Graduation Rates

In the late 1980s, the two basketball players, Rep. Tom McMillen and Sen. Bill Bradley, wanted to force colleges to publish the graduation rates of their athletes. Although the NCAA eventually agreed to publish the information on its own, the idea still made its way into a broader disclosure bill in 1990 that also required colleges to publish crime rates at their institutions. By then, the graduation-rate provision was expanded to include all students. The thought was that you can’t compare athletes without knowing the rate for everyone else on the campus.

It would be another five years before colleges actually started to report their graduation rates because of debates among federal regulators over exactly how to collect this information.

More than 15 years later, the debate over how to measure college graduation rates and what they measure rages on…

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